Santa Lucia Preserve: An Enclave of Old California

How to explain the existence of a 20,000-acre nature preserve with a smattering of homes and a superlative golf course a short distance from the most coveted address in American golf? Patient money and pure serendipity led to the creation of Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel, Calif., its western boundary a mere three miles from Pebble Beach.

Tucked in the temperate coastal foothills of the Santa Lucia Range, the Preserve can be likened to a modern-day Shangri-la. In James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Shangri-la is a remote, beautiful but imaginary land where life approaches perfection. The Preserve is no pipe dream. It is real. All 31 square miles of it. That’s roughly the size of the Monterey Peninsula itself, or one and one-half times the size of Manhattan, its diametric opposite. Billed as “the nation’s first community preserve,” this majestic enclave has, since its inception in 2000, established itself as one of the most favored communities in America. An inventory of its natural assets and preservationist leanings would gladden the heart of the most ardent tree-hugger.

First, some history. Archaeological discoveries suggest that the Monterey Peninsula’s earliest aboriginal villages were situated along the shore of the Del Monte Forest. Fifteen centuries ago, the Ohlone Indians established their village of Echilat on what are now the Preserve’s central plains.

The region slumbered until 1770, when Franciscan missionaries came ashore at Monterey. They were followed by Spanish settlers who were drawn to the region’s riverside grasslands and pastures. By the 1830’s, Mexican land grants covered a major portion of the Preserve. This was the time of vaqueros and fiestas. In the late 1800’s, a cattle-ranching baron consolidated the ranchos into a single 20,000-acre holding. During the Roaring Twenties, a social lion named George Gordon Moore transformed the ranch into a polo center, hunting preserve and lavish retreat where bootleg bourbon fueled all-night parties. (Scholars have suggested that Moore may have inspired the portrait of the tragic hero in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel).

While land holdings throughout the Carmel Valley region were routinely subdivided in the ensuring years, by some iracle the 20,000 acres at Rancho San Carlos, as it was known,  remained intact. Within this exalted expanse, which rises from 100 to 3,000 feet along a spidery road that winds through the hills, the grasslands and chaparral give way to groves of oak, pine and towering redwood. It is essentially an 18th-century landscape little changed from the time the Spanish padres arrived. The vast tract contains 54 distinct habitats virtually hidden from the outside world by the sheltering ridges of the Santa Lucia Range. Buffered by the Big Sur Land Trust, U.S. Forest Service lands and a regional park district, the Preserve’s sightlines will remain undisturbed.

Tom Gray, one of the Preserve’s visionary developers and a long-time community resident, says, “My first impression was astonishment that 20,000 acres had somehow fallen through time without being changed very much other than as a cattle ranch.”

Vast tracts of undeveloped land are rare in these parts

Under the stewardship of the Santa Lucia Conservancy, established by the developers to conserve and sustain one of the largest private land holdings in coastal California, 18,000 acres has been set aside to protect the site’s wildlife habitats in perpetuity. Two-thirds of this total acreage, comprising the richest natural resources, is owned by the Conservancy. A 6,000-acre parcel is privately owned and held under the management of the Conservancy through conservation easements. The remaining 2,000 acres of the Preserve—a mere one-tenth of the total land mass—is devoted to residences, recreation and community services.

Just 300 families and their guests are free to enjoy the Preserve’s active lifestyle pursuits, including a lay-of-the-land golf course, a fitness center with tennis courts and swimming, an equestrian center with stables, arena and pasture, and more than 100 miles of hiking and riding trails. There’s also elegant lodging and dining available for members and guests at the club’s restored 1924 Hacienda.

The community tends to attract residents with some connection to California who value elbow room, lovely pastoral settings and respite from the hectic pace of modern life. (It is perhaps serendipitous that cell phone reception at the Preserve is sketchy).

The community’s amenities are about what you’d expect given the seven-figure price for an estate parcel, but except for its abundant wildlife and splendid views, Santa Lucia Preserve is renowned for what it doesn’t have. There are no blots on the landscape. None.  Homes at the Preserve are completely subservient to the environment. They’re also tucked away in the Preserve’s least environmentally sensitive areas and are separated from each other by hundreds of yards. Owners go out of their way to ensure their homes are designed in harmony with the land. Exterior colors—ochre, weathered tan, dusty rose—are deliberately drab.

Architectural guidelines draw on the California traditions of Spanish Mission, Monterey Colonial, Arts and Crafts, even board-and-batten barns. The Preserve is one of the few places in America where a multi-millionaire would readily consent to build a glorified outbuilding for a second home.

According to Jim Sulentich, executive director of the Santa Lucia Conservancy, “The design guidelines are very clear about how and where homes can be built and what colors and landscaping can be used. Initially, I was very leery about the reaction of prospective residents to the building restrictions and covenants. One of the members later told me, ‘We own here because of the restrictions, not despite them.’”

In sum, edifices at the Preserve are among the most unobtrusive homes of any upscale community in America. A 19th-century ranchero would see nothing amiss at the Preserve were he to return today.  Except maybe for the golf course. But even that amenity sits so quietly on the land, the holes tend to disappear into the landscape. Framed by burly oaks draped with lace lichen, with fields of wildflowers and seasonal creeks set against a backdrop of haystack-shaped hills, the course tiptoes lightly across the terrain and never trumpets its presence. The challenge of each hole is riveting, but a round of golf at the Preserve is all about reveling in Nature.

The Preserve’s golf course partakes of nature

In the early 1990s, Gray contacted Sandy Tatum, a patriarch of the game who had collaborated on the design of nearby Spanish Bay with Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and Tom Watson a decade earlier. A purist who abhors contrivances on a golf course, Tatum gave Gray his candid opinions. “Because sand does not appear in most inland areas, Sandy was not a big fan of extravagant bunkering,” Gray remembers. (There are today fewer than 50 bunkers on the course, and most are directional, not penal). Tatum cautioned that the landscape should be modified as little as possible. He also felt the putting surfaces should be left open in front so that players could bounce the ball onto the greens. Both men wanted graceful transitions between holes so that the course could be walked by reasonably fit players.

Next, Gray called in an acquaintance, J. Michael Poellot, to create a routing for the course, as a g

olf blueprint was required to apply for development permits. Poellot, best known for his design work in the Far East, was an early participant in the grand experiment of achieving a sustainable bala

nce between the natural world and human settlement.

Describing the project as “one of the most extensive and environmentally challenging efforts ever undertaken by a private developer,” Poellot says the proposed community “was just a ranch with no paved roads when I first saw it.” Based in Saratoga, Calif. some 90 minutes north of Carmel, Poellot, a frequent visitor to the site, juggled dozens of different routings to jigsaw a layout that flutters lightly across the land. “The idea was to create a golf trail, a course that would take players into the meadows and across the ridgetops,” Poellot explains.

In 1998, Gray contacted Tom Fazio, who he says “had the highest profile at the time among the game’s cognoscenti. This was important to us from a marketing perspective. We needed a designer ‘name’ for the course. Our expectation was that there would be two private clubs an avid golfer visiting the Monterey area would beg, borrow or steal to get on–the Preserve and Cypress Point. Those were the two you’d go home and tell your friends about.”

Working from Poellot’s routing and mindful of Tatum’s guidelines, Fazio dropped the holes where they were meant to fall. Opened in 2000, the course today looks like what it is: a fruitful collaboration guided by respect for the land, a venue without ‘signature’ holes or a recognizable style. It is from start to finish a mesmerizing layout that nestles comfortably into the landscape, akin perhaps to a utopian course in the hills of Tuscany.

Santa Lucia oozes ‘Old California’

Wisely, the design trio did not attempt to compete with the natural grandeur of the setting, a grandeur that comes alive in the spring, when fields of lupine, their spires of pealike flowers covering the slopes with an amethystine hue, come alive. The lupine is a perfect complement to the deep yellow gold of the California poppies that also carpet the hillsides from March through May.

With five sets of tees ranging from 7,067 to 5,148 yards (par 72), the Preserve appears fairly innocuous on the scorecard. But the design team expertly harnessed the site’s natural defenses. The course plays a little tougher than it looks. Certainly the greens stand in the way of easy pars. While sizable enough, many of the putting surfaces are intricately contoured or subtly tilted. A few have false fronts that repel tentative approach shots. All are very speedy.

There’s another reason why most players don’t shoot the grass off the Preserve. Except for the tee shot at the first hole, which plunges straight downhill, many of the holes, subtly or otherwise, proceed uphill. This accounts for the 74.5 course rating and 143 slope from the Championship tees. The golf course plays at least 200 yards longer from the tips based on the rising fairways and hilltop greens.

Golf Digest ranked The Preserve Golf Club No. 78 on its list of ‘America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses 2009-10,’ with Fazio, Poellot and Tatum listed as course designers. If the magazine needed another name for attribution, it could have listed Mother Nature. Unlike many modern courses, the Preserve, which crisscrosses the land the way a migrating animal might, is a collaboration with Nature, not a usurpation of it.

Wildlife is famously abundant at the Preserve. Poellot calls it “Jurassic Park,” noting that golfers are likely to see bobcat, wild boar, gray fox, badger, wild turkey and black-tailed mule deer during the round. Mountain lions, also known as cougars in these parts, are not uncommon. Golden eagles soar high above the Preserve, sometimes in circling pairs. More than 30 species of birds, both resident and migratory, have been observed at the community. Among the most distinctive is the brash and mischievous Steller’s Jay, which is notorious for raiding picnics.

While Gray is proud of the firm but fair challenge posed by the Preserve, he is equally proud of the way the course was built. After the entire site was capped with a foot of sand, drain fields were installed that effectively channel water around or under the layout. In a state where water is a hot-button issue, the club has devised an ingenious irrigation system. H2O for the course is drawn in one-third increments from tertiary treated water, non-potable wells, and from water that is recaptured off the course itself, later directed to holding ponds and then re-sprinkled on the fairways.

Despite the ample water sources, there is no featherbedding at the Preserve. Course superintendent Cory Isom has sought to maintain the playing surfaces along the lines of what one would encounter at a seaside links.“We’ve aerated the course more than 10 times since 2006 to achieve the firm, fast conditions envisioned by the design team,” he says. “The golf course is a lot more fun to play when it’s running fast, and players can take advantage of the ground contours when the turf is firm.

“We have the best grass-growing conditions imaginable here at the Preserve,” Isom continues. “We have an ideal maritime climate at 1,500 feet, basically all of the good ocean influences without any of the bad effects,  notably the band of fog that usually clings to the coast in the summer months. Our summers are warm and sunny and humidity-free,” he says. Surfaced in bentgrass from tee to green, the Preserve is outlined by a blend of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass in the rough.

Gray points out that portions of the golf course site had been terribly depleted after years of unchecked grazing and dry-farming. “We allowed these areas to re-naturalize themselves, and in the process actually improved wildlife habitat around the course, which our opponents claimed could not be done,” he says. “Even environmentalists who had vigorously opposed the project are now among its most vocal supporters.”

Never say never, but it’s highly doubtful a community the size and quality of Santa Lucia Preserve will ever be developed or “settled” anywhere in America, much less on the doorstep of a world-class golf destination. As a place to step back in time and observe the cycles of Nature, the Preserve, a cocoon of Old California, is in a class of its own.

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