Sea Ranch legacy looms large on architecture, coastal protection
This story originally ran in Sonoma Magazine.
Al and Diana Edgerton were tooling north to Mendocino for a July 4 getaway in 1964 when they were beckoned off Highway 1 by a “lots for sale” sign bearing a bold ram’s-horn logo.
The sales office had opened just that weekend for an intriguing new development dubbed “The Sea Ranch.” The deals were as seductive as the setting - thick hillside forests of redwood, fir and fern overlooking a tableland of meadows that meet the sea along a shore notched with nubbly cliffs and coves. Lots could be locked up for as little as $4,500 in the forest east of Highway 1, $8,500 in a meadow with at least a peek of the ocean.
“We stopped out of curiosity. We had never heard of The Sea Ranch,” Edgerton, a retired oral surgeon, remembered. “But we cut short our vacation in Elk and put a down payment on a lot.”
It was a radical move for a young couple with one baby and another on the way, who had yet to buy their first home. But that impulsive purchase made them pioneers in a groundbreaking experiment in land development and design that continues to resonate 50 years later.
The Sea Ranch was conceived amid the infant “ecology” movement sparked by Rachel Carson’s 1962 anti-pesticide exposé, “Silent Spring.” Its guiding ethos of “living lightly on the land” was defined by Sea Ranch’s celebrated designer, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. He would inspire a revolutionary new approach to environmentally sensitive land-use planning and architecture that a half-century later is still studied and admired around the world.
At the same time, pitched battles over public access to The Sea Ranch’s 10 miles of ragged bluffs and beaches made for a tumultuous early history and would have a seismic impact on the future of the entire California coast. Local activists led by Petaluman Bill Kortum, later a county supervisor, spearheaded a fight for public trails into the private enclave. While their efforts failed locally, they took it to statewide voters, culminating in a 1972 ballot initiative creating the powerful California Coastal Commission and in 1976, the state Coastal Act to protect the shoreline and ensure the public can share in its beauty.
The clashes led to hard-won compromises. There are now six public access points to Sea Ranch beaches and a public trail at Black Point. Original plans were slashed from 5,200 to 2,429 lots, of which 1,850 are built. While there are no definitive numbers, Sea Ranch officials figure roughly one-third of the homes are occupied full time, one-third are weekenders and the remainder vacation and long-term rentals.
Without Sea Ranch as a catalyst for California coastal protection, mused former Sonoma County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, “it would be gruesome out there.”
“We would be fighting access to the tidelands,” he said. “You’d have development along the North Coast in ways that would probably be more like Southern California and you would not have public ownership of the land.”
Eric Koenigshofer, the Sonoma County supervisor representing the coast during some of the angriest debates about a private development that would deny the public access to the coast, makes the same north-south comparison in assessing the lasting effects of Sea Ranch.
“When you think of Orange County and its beach communities, the Sonoma Coast could have developed like that,” he said. “No engineering problem would have prevented something like the Newport Freeway running from Santa Rosa to Bodega Bay.”
Still, Sea Ranch remains the largest development on an otherwise sparsely developed coast, with homes fronting 10 of the 60 miles of Sonoma County coastline. Those coveted 10 miles were part of Rancho Del Mar, a 5,200-acre sheep ranch bought from the Ohlson family for an estimated $2.7 million in 1963.
During the tumultuous years of the debate that followed in the 1970s, disagreements with the new coastal regulators over Sea Ranch’s size and the public’s right to freely access the coast led to legal battles. A virtual moratorium on building sparked what amounted to a Civil War among residents in what was supposed to be a quiet refuge.
And there were casualties. People who had saved and purchased lots on this breathtaking stretch intended to retire there. But they were stalled as the larger political drama played out across the state. While Sea Ranch began a movement that protected the coast for all Californians, sometimes there was individual cost.
“There were a lot of people … in the middle of a public policy dispute,” Koenigshofer said. “They were very likeable people in the late part of their lives who had put everything they had into what they thought was going to be their dream retirement and for many it wasn’t realized.”