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Power, Politics AND Pebble Beach
Alan Shipnuck
June 26, 2000
It took a decade of debate to get a new golf course project off the ground on the Monterey Peninsula
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June 26, 2000

Power, Politics And Pebble Beach

It took a decade of debate to get a new golf course project off the ground on the Monterey Peninsula

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On June 6, Clint Eastwood stepped to the microphone at a Monterey County Board of Supervisors meeting and gave one of the great performances of his career. His audience was suspicious, and rightly so, because Eastwood's soliloquy this evening was intended to convince them that what Pebble Beach needed to preserve its world-renowned beauty was a new golf course, an additional 150 to 160 hotel rooms and 60 houses. One of four managing partners of the Pebble Beach Company—the privately held interest that owns the 5,300-acre Del Monte Forest and counts Pebble Beach Golf Links and the Lodge at Pebble Beach among its glittering holdings—Eastwood was appearing in front of the supervisors to seek approval for the latest version of a proposed development within the forest, a project that has been a political football for much of the last decade on the Monterey Peninsula, where the issue of golf course development versus the environment is always high drama.

A few breaths into Eastwood's spiel, something funny happened: The screen icon was rudely interrupted as the sonorous sounds of a Massachusetts accent filled the board chamber. "Sir, will you please state your name for the record," said Dave Potter, Monterey County's fifth-district supervisor. This elicited spasms of laughter from the sparse crowd and a broad grin from Eastwood, who gamely complied with the request before plowing on with his remarks.

Eastwood's presentation capped years of extraordinary backroom maneuvering, and the plan he put forward represented a compromise that will in all likelihood finally bring a new championship course, among other accoutrements, to Pebble Beach. The plotline is chock-full of juicy political intrigue, dazzling amounts of money and bitter rhetoric. In other words, it would make a great movie.

Most of the action rests on two leading men—Eastwood and Potter—who, having staked out opposite sides of the land-use debate, are not as chummy as their little exchange might suggest. Locally, Eastwood is as well-known for being an unstoppable political force as he is for being a movie star. The onetime mayor of Carmel has morphed into a land baron whose blockbuster development ventures make Hollywood budgets look small. Potter, 50, is a no-growth Democrat with an environmentalist bent, and he considers Monterey pines and other precious coastal resources to be immovable objects. A stalwart on the board of supervisors as well as three other key government regulatory agencies, Potter is the most powerful man in Pebble Beach, and yet even he was dazzled by Eastwood's performance. "It was an Academy Award-winning presentation," Potter says. "Having Clint show up demonstrated a seriousness of intent and a personal commitment that can only help this project on its long journey through the regulatory process."

How long a journey? It has already spanned eight years, four Pebble Beach ownership groups and countless migraines. The original application to build was submitted by the Pebble Beach Company in 1992, for a Tom Fazio-designed course to be placed in Pescadero Canyon, a densely wooded area just below the Highway 1 gate that serves as the primary portal to 17-Mile Drive. That proposal also included 16 subdivisions with 403 residential lots spread over 686 acres. Over the next four years a battery of environmental impact studies all but ruled out the plan.

In 1996 the company reapplied for building permits with an entirely new project, the Revised Alternative 2 (RALT 2). The course, again designed by Fazio, was moved clear across the forest, beginning at what is now the equestrian center adjacent to the Pebble Beach Golf Links driving range. The course would meander through dense stands of Monterey pine in the direction of Spyglass Hill before plunging towards the coast, offering sweeping vistas of the ocean and, notably, the 5th and 6th holes of the exclusive Cypress Point Club. In an effort to get the project approved, the Pebble Beach Company scaled back the number of homesites to 316 and reconfigured the subdivisions to avoid the most sensitive habitat areas. In January 1999, after more than two years and another barrage of studies, the Monterey County Planning and Building Department signed off on RALT 2, the first step toward an eventual vote by the county board of supervisors.

However, the project's momentum quickly evaporated a few months later when the owners of the Pebble Beach Company—a consortium of Japanese companies—were compelled to unload the company due to financial pressures back home. Throughout the spring and summer of '99, RALT 2 was put on hold as high-stakes negotiations were secretly held with a bevy of suitors. In July a group of 132 private investors kicked down $820 million to purchase the company. The group was led by the so-called Dream Team of Eastwood; Dick Ferris, the onetime CEO of United Airlines and currently the chairman of the PGA Tour's policy board; Arnold Palmer; and former major league baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. This famous foursome is said to have ponied up $100 million of its own money, grabbing a majority of the seats on the company's seven-man board of directors.

At the time of the Pebble purchase Eastwood was still strutting, having recently prevailed in a bloody battle to put 88 homes and a private golf club on a 2,010-acre parcel atop a series of ridges above Carmel Valley. This development, Canada Woods, had been approved by the board of supervisors in December 1996 just three weeks before Potter's fifth-district predecessor, Sam Karas, retired from office. A longtime friend of Eastwood's, Karas had had a speaking role as Thirsty Thurston in Eastwood's 1992 Oscar-winning film Unforgiven, and voted in favor of the project.

Potter swept into office on the first Tuesday of 1997 in the wake of the Ca�ada Woods vote, taking Karas's vacant seat. (Potter was reelected in March.) The high-profile machinations involving the Ca�ada Woods project had only made Potter's no-growth platform more attractive, and upon taking office he was quick to draw a line in the sand, pledging that he would allow no more subdivisions in the fifth district (which comprises Big Sur, Carmel, Carmel Valley, Monterey, Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach).

Potter has spent the last 18 years driving an hour and half each way to San Jose to play in weekly pickup hockey games as a comically undersized (5'6") defenseman—"the second-to-last guy the puck gets by," he says. He sees his role in the land-use process as much the same. "I think we all know this is one of the truly special places in the world," he says. "So why do we want to be just another bug on the windshield of development? If you want urban blight, go to San Jose. Don't bring it into my district." Surveying, in his mind's eye, Pebble Beach's glorious coastline and the majestic forest that frames it, Potter adds, "I'm in charge of making sure none of this ever changes."

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