|By David Herbert, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jul. 6, 2005 - Environmentalists and Half Moon Bay residents will score a major victory next week when the owners of a renowned golf course submit plans to dismantle a controversial seawall protecting the course's trademark 18th hole.
Ocean Colony Partners, the real estate developer that owns and manages the course adjacent to the Ritz-Carlton, has been wrangling with the California Coastal Commission since 2002, when the Sierra Club discovered that the developer had dumped hundreds of boulders on a public beach without a permit.
The developer erected the seawall in 1999 as it was completing the golf course, which sits on land owned by the Ritz-Carlton and is the crown jewel of the luxury resort.
But Sierra Club officials charged that the seawall blocked public access to the beach and was disrupting the coastal environment.
"This is a long overdue victory for law and order out on the coast," said Mark Massara, an environmental lawyer with the Sierra Club. He called the wall "one of the more egregious" unpermitted projects to reach the Coastal Commission. Commission officials did not return calls for comment.
In a compromise deal, Ocean Colony Partners agreed in 2002 to remove half of the rocks and to build public access paths and stairs to the beach. But under continual fire from residents and the Sierra Club, the developer -- now under new management -- has ceded more ground and will ask the Coastal Commission July 13 to allow it to remove the rest of the boulders.
The developer shifted tacks as the costly and protracted legal battle with the Coastal Commission continued and new course designs became more feasible, said Bruce Russell, who is CEO of Kenmark, the real estate development and management firm that controls Ocean Colony Partners.
The seawall's removal will cause erosion, forcing Kenmark to move the hole. The 18th pin now sits just feet from the coastline.
"Would we like to leave the green where it is?" Russell said. "We would. We'd like to leave it as close to the bluff as possible."
Russell tried to put a positive spin on the change, promising that Kenmark would bring in a well-known course designer and hopefully make improvements to the hole, which is consistently ranked one of the best in the country.
"It's the signature hole for the resort," said Paul Ratchford, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. He added that he trusted Kenmark to maintain the aesthetic design of the hole, which he said was valuable to the resort's image.
Beyond infringing on a public beach, the seawall is part of a larger environmental problem in the state, said the Sierra Club's Massara. Seawalls increase erosion by scouring the sand and disturbing a host of marine life.
"They raise red flags and alarms," Massara said, adding that more than 150 miles of the California coast are already lined with seawalls.
The developer's change of heart is the best long-term solution to erosion, Massara said.
"Bluffs do what bluffs are supposed to do," he said. "They crumble." That dirt is turned into natural sand dunes, which keep waves at bay.
But Massara said he was not viewing the news as a victory, but as a troubling sign of the times. An underfunded Coastal Commission, he said, took three years to learn about the illegal seawall and another three years to have it dismantled.
"If you've ever seen the hotel out there," he said, referring to the sprawling Ritz-Carlton, which sits on what was once pristine coastline, "you know we've lost that battle."
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