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'50s Motel Sounds Jarring Note on California's Central Coast

By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Jan. 14, 2005 --For some, it's a cheap place to sleep on California's central coast, a throwback to a simpler time, with plastic flowers, fading pictures on the walls and an aging house cat named Mr. Pee.

For others, it's a smudge on the Mona Lisa -- an eyesore of peeling paint and rusting patio furniture that doesn't belong amid the green meadows and rugged beaches along Highway 1 near Hearst Castle.

Hoping to put the finishing touches on their $95 million deal to preserve the rural character of the massive Hearst Ranch, California officials and a San Francisco environmental group are attempting to purchase the 14-room Piedras Blancas Motel, the only private development along 13 miles of Hearst oceanfront set to become a string of new state parks.

The 1950s-era motel sits on the west side of Highway 1 between the Monterey County line and Hearst Castle. It sells gas for $3.99 a gallon -- there are no other pumps for about 10 miles in either direction -- and has a gift shop offering beef jerky and hand-carved dolphins.

"It is completely out of place," said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy. "You have this magnificent scenery, and then you see this Texaco sign, and the plastic flowers, and this motel that looks like it should be rented out by the hour. Every time I would drive by there, I would turn to my staff and say, 'Why can't we buy that?' "

Last month, the Coastal Conservancy committed $2 million in state parks bond funding toward the motel's $4.5 million sale price.

A non-profit group, the American Land Conservancy, has an option to buy the property and is attempting to raise the remaining $2.5 million from donors and foundations.

The groups plan to either raze the motel or, more likely, restore it, repaint it in earth tones and convert it to a youth hostel, campground and visitor center for the millions of tourists who drive along the California coast through Big Sur to Hearst Castle.

"It is a gorgeous area," said Jeff Stump, vice president of the American Land Conservancy. "This is a place where you can stand back and look at the scenic protections on the rest of the coast."

Piedras Blancas, which means "white stones" in Spanish, is a point on the coast named by early explorers for the guano-covered rocks in the area. It is famous now for an 1875 lighthouse and a colony of 8,000 elephant seals which frequent local beaches.

The owner of the Piedras Blancas Motel, Stuart Sidney, a San Bernardino County real estate investor, bought the property in 1980, intending to fix it up and sell it within a few years. But huge storms in 1983 closed Highway 1 at Big Sur for more than a year, so he decided to stay.

"My family and I lived there for nine years," he said. "We always had a sign, 'Last motel before the castle." It was a pretty good business. We had to drive seven miles just to get our mail, but we had all kinds of fun there."

Prices range from $39 a night in winter to $189 a night in summer.

Sidney, now 67, said as he reached retirement age, he put it on the market.

On a recent day this week, only a few of the rooms were booked. Paint peeled from aging wooden buildings. One room couldn't be rented because a skunk had sprayed underneath it.

"When they bought the motel, they did a lot of work," said manager Donna Buckingham. "The doors were hanging off. It was just bums and raccoons living here."

"Mr. Pee," the elderly striped cat, wandered the grounds. "Yes, that's what it means. But he doesn't much anymore," Buckingham said. "We had him fixed.'

The deal to purchase the old motel includes 20 acres around it, along with a caretaker's house and half a mile of ocean frontage. Currently, two beaches there are closed to the public. If the conservancy closes the deal, it hopes to reopen the beaches by this spring, Stump said.

Environmentalists and state planners worry that if the motel were purchased by a developer, it could be rebuilt into a larger resort. That probably would require construction of a seawall on the eroding beachfront.

"We look at this as the cherry on top of the cake of the Hearst Ranch deal," said Stump. "It is protecting California's $95 million investment. This is protecting and restoring the character of the coast, and views, and expanding public access."

Last year, the Schwarzenegger administration agreed to pay the Hearst Corporation, which publishes the San Francisco Chronicle and numerous magazines, $80 million in cash and provide a $15 million tax credit. In exchange, Hearst would give the public 13 miles of shoreline for new state beaches, and would give up most development rights to the 82,000-acre ranch -- a sprawling property three times the size of the city of San Francisco. Hearst would be limited to building 27 homes and a 100-room hotel.

The Piedras Blancas Motel was built in the early 1950s, just before tourists began flocking to Hearst Castle following the death of its owner, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, in 1951. The Hearst Corporation gave the castle to California's state parks department in 1957. The motel's 20 acres were lands that previous owners refused to sell to Hearst.

Environmentalists say they are excited at the motel's rebirth. They say the proposed California Coastal Trail can go through the property, and a hostel could provide a visitor center, parking and affordable places for families to stay.

"What we see more and more along the coast is this incredible gentrification -- creating very expensive hotel accommodations that are really out of reach of the average California resident," said Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network. "Everyone should be able to enjoy the coast."

-----To see more of the San Jose Mercury News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.mercurynews.com.

(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail reprints@krtinfo.com.

 
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