Sometime last summer, the blufftop overlooking Haskell’s Beach was developed by the Bacara Resort into a grassy, oceanview wedding venue, complete with sod, wood chips, and irrigation. But the work was done in an archaeologically sensitive area without any permits, so this Thursday, the California Coastal Commission will issue a $575,000 fine and officially force the resort to restore the site — believed to have been a Chumash village for 6,000 or so years — to its former state.
Since the development was done by the former owners, Ohana Real Estate, that company will bear the burden of the fine and restoration costs. Both Ohana — whose president Chris Smith had no comments to offer on this situation — and the current owners, Pacific Hospitality Group, have expressed intent to comply “amicably” with the ruling. “Bacara is committed to protecting our coastline and natural resources and has pledged our full support to local nonprofits that further this mission,” said Kathleen Cochran, general manager of Bacara Resort & Spa, in an email statement. “Bacara’s new ownership group takes this issue very seriously and is committed to working amicably with the Coastal Commission on a beneficial resolution.”
The Coastal Commission’s report describes in detail how the changes to the blufftop were reported in July 2012, and the commission quickly sent an inspector to verify. The inspector found that — contrary to the hands-off rules that were issued for the “eastern terrace” area when the Bacara was approved more than a decade ago — the resort had removed “major vegetation, including coastal sage scrub and eucalyptus trees” and put in non-native landscaping, eucalyptus wood chips, “geo fabric,” and an above-ground irrigation system. This, the report explains, “resulted in the creation of a private wedding and event venue, located directly on top of a highly sensitive archaeological zone and on or near an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area.” The latter refers, in part, to the Bell Canyon Creek on the other side of the terrace, which may have sustained damage from the development.
The inspector also noticed a new no-trespassing sign and metal gate that were contrary to the existing permits, which mandate that the bluff must remain open to the public with a hiking-equestrian trail. Additionally, the inspector realized that the original order to erect public access and interpretive signs around the bluff had also been ignored, apparently since the property was opened by the original owner-developer, Alvin Dworman, in 2000. Further analysis of historic maps revealed that brush-clearing on the site may have happened repeatedly over the years as well.
Other than the presumed ignorance of the Coastal Commission’s strict rules, the prevailing concern about the work revolves around potential impacts to the Chumash archaeology, which has been well documented in that entire canyon. According to the 2008 book A Canyon Through Time: Archaeology, History, and Ecology of the Tecolote Canyon Area, the area was home to numerous cemeteries — including the grave of the Swordfish Man, one of the most elaborately adorned burials of the region — as well as a ceremonial dance platform. Among other artifacts detailed are two obsidian tools originally from Inyo County, evidence of how extensive California’s trade network was prior to the arrival of Europeans. A Chumash consultant has been involved in assessing the matter since last fall, and will continue to advise the Bacara on how best to undo the potential damage.
Read the Coastal Commission’s extensive report here.