by Mark and Elisabeth Sarrow
The little town of Cayucos lies on the central coast of California, about 22 miles south of Hearst Castle on Highway 1. Some call it the last of the California beach towns. Bordered by ranch land on three sides and the Pacific Ocean at its doorstep, it’s a small town with an abundance of small town charm.
Decades ago there were many of these unique and charming beach towns from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Each one of them had a different character. From Venice to Laguna to La Jolla and Oceanside, each was distinct. And when a person drove from one to the next, there was open space in-between. Ranch and farmland. Now those spaces are filled with tracts of homes and shopping centers, car lots and fast food restaurants. It’s difficult to tell anymore where one ends and another begins. As Roger Lyon, a north coast rancher and land use attorney put it: “Driving through Southern California, it’s impossible, other than by freeway signs, to know when you leave one community and enter another. It wasn’t like that 25 or 50 years ago”.
Folks in Cayucos know this. They look at their little town and they know it could become like the others one day.
In 1979, something big happened in Cayucos that went virtually unnoticed for years in the wider world. A powerful group from southern California purchased 275 acres of beautiful and pristine marine terrace just west of the town limits. In a short while, the property was re-zoned from agricultural use to zoning that would allow 60 homes and a hotel with as many as 250 rooms plus shopping and restaurants. The investor group even obtained the approval of the California Coastal Commission for the development zoning. That property is known as Estero Bluffs.
Now the town just happens to have an outfit called the Cayucos Citizens Advisory Council (CCAC). Up until then, it had dealt with barking dogs and knocked over trash cans. But the Council has influence when it comes to advising County government on issues of concern to Cayucos, including if and when to extend services such as water and sewer to new developments. So before the developers could approach the County Board of Supervisors with their plan, they needed to present their case to the Advisory Council.
At the first Council meeting dealing with the proposal to develop the Estero Bluff property, locals were surprised at the scope of the project. “This just doesn’t seem right, but everyone says there is nothing we can do. Does this have to happen?” Susan Lyon asked her husband Roger. “No” he replied, “but I don’t think the town knows that”. Soon after that Susan took a seat on the Council. Then she and Roger invited ten couples for dinner and recruited them to get the word out to the townspeople that Cayucos was about to change forever.
Meanwhile, Lyon, an attorney with a land use background, did the research on how to amend or stop the proposed development. After that, a town meeting was held at the Veterans’ Hall and the developer was invited to present the plan to the community. About 500 people attended. It was standing room only. When the locals saw the developer’s proposal for the bluff: a big hotel, shops, luxury homes in a gated community and minimum open space, residents experienced an “Aha” moment. Many spoke out, and some became rowdy. Battle lines were drawn.
Over the next ten years many political battles were fought. The CCAC requested that the zoning for the property be returned to Agriculture. The developers remained intractable and unconcerned as down zoning land back to agricultural use was virtually never done. The Board of Supervisors did exactly that in April 1993 and the Coastal Commission shortly after certified the same down-zoning. For the next 4 1⁄2 years the developer continued to bring revised plans to the County. Bruce Gibson, Laurie Niblock, Evie Pelaton and many others from the CCAC fought during those years to defeat each new plan. Finally in September 1997, the Board of Supervisors, by unanimous vote, rejected the development plan and the property owner announced that the property would be offered for sale. In December 1998 the Trust for Public Land (TPL) purchased the Estero Bluffs property and an adjacent parcel for over 7 million dollars.
But the community’s efforts to protect the Estero Bluffs were not over because purchase by TPL did not guarantee permanent protection by Cayucos standards. After buying a property, TPL identifies a permanent steward and owner for the properties it purchases. In this case, TPL selected the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). But Roger Lyon knew that State Parks had sold or developed land in the past and that Parks ownership would not guarantee permanent protection. Consequently, for the next two years, he and others fought to create a conservation easement and have it placed on the property. But State Parks had never accepted ownership of property with a permanent public easement held by another entity and DPR did not want to change its policy. As a result, negotiations between the local townspeople and the top officials of State Parks were intense and “the noses were very close together...” as Roger put it. While negotiations were going on, the people of Cayucos were articulating their vision for the Estero Bluffs. In individual meetings and community workshops TPL representatives heard townspeople express their hope that the property would remain as it is —forever.
By this time, Lyon, Gibson, Greg Bettencourt, and others had created the Cayucos Land Conservancy for the purpose of managing the Estero Bluffs and holding the easement. They made the argument that the town had fought for twenty years to protect the property and therefore had “sweat equity” in it. And that “sweat equity” should be honored by allowing the community to control the property. Ultimately that argument prevailed and TPL decided that the Cayucos Land Conservancy would be “co-managers” of Estero Bluffs with State Parks.
“In all the land use issues I have been involved with there is always controversy” Lyon remarked. “There are usually two or three different camps with different points of view. That was not the case in Cayucos, we had virtual consensus from the entire community. Everyone was united in their vision. And the vision was that the view from Highway 1 (traveled by 4 million people a year) be there forever. That it not change. That there be no ranger residence, no lodge or hotel. The vision is that the Estero Bluffs be as it is now...forever.”
And all because of the little town that could.