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Southern California environment news and trends

Behind the $2.5M deal for Facebook co-founder's 'Lord of the Rings' Big Sur wedding

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A Facebook co-founder’s Big Sur wedding this past Saturday might have looked like Rivendell, but regulators say illegal development has turned central California coastal land into Mount Doom... and the whole ruckus should turn the Eye of Sauron onto the regulators themselves.

For those of you who don’t speak "The Lord of the Rings": Sean Parker (you know, Justin Timberlake in "The Social Network")  got hitched beneath a canopy of ancient redwoods at the Ventana Inn and Spa. (The Tolkien references were for the costume designer who styled the event and, earlier, costumes for "The Lord of The Rings.") The California Coastal Commission says construction for the $10 million wedding is actually not permitted development under the Coastal Act:

including grading, change in use from campground to private event, construction of multiple structures including a gateway and arch, an artificial pond, a stone bridge, multiple event platforms with elevated floors, rock walls, artificially created ruins of cottages and castle walls, multiple locations with rock stairways, a dance floor, installation of numerous potted trees, potted plants and flowers, event tents, port-a-potties, generators, lighting, and wedding facilities ...

That’s from the commission’s staff report, which describes legal settlements for the damage, requiring $2.5 million in fines, restitution and restoration of the land. Parker created a company just to run the wedding.

Initial coverage of this settlement has focused on the mindset of Facebook’s founders and Silicon Valley. I like the way The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal put it:

[T]hat’s … part of the new Silicon Valley parable: dream big, privatize the previously public, pay no attention to the rules, build recklessly, enjoy shamelessly, invoke magic, and then pay everybody off. 

It’s not just Sean Parker or Neraida, the company he created just for the wedding, who are settling liability, so the proposed settlement deserves a deeper look. The other party to the settlement is the Ventana Inn and Spa, where the wedding took place. Ventana cut a deal with Parker and Neraida to secure his wedding business and that of his elite guest list.

So it bears mentioning that the proposed settlement also clears up Ventana’s liability going back to 2007 — liability that coastal regulators seem to indicate they wouldn’t have known of without the Parker wedding.

The permit for Ventana’s high-end rooms (if you have to ask, you can’t afford them) required the private company to operate a public campground with 100 sites. That use balances access along the coast for the Sean Parkers of the world with access for, say, a Molly Peterson.

Except Ventana closed the campground six years ago, because of problems water regulators found with the septic system. Ventana never told the Coastal Commission about the closed campground.

Ventana made an agreement with Parker to lease out the campground area back in January. Work for the wedding started in March. “A member of the public” tipped the Coastal Commission to possible illegal development in late April; enforcement showed up in May.

What this means is that the state came to an agreement in late May, before the wedding even happened, for Coastal Act violations it found earlier that month. Not just that, but the state is willing to settle over six years of mostly unrelated Coastal Act violations by the property owner, Ventana, in the same agreement.

So the $2.5 million fine for Sean Parker’s Elven-style bridges and stone ruins covers a neglect that well predates the wedding. Ventana seems to have figured out how to violate the Coastal Act for six years and get a big fancy wedding to pay for it.

In the news release announcing the settlement, California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester described Sean Parker as “extremely cooperative and actively involved” in discussions about his illegal development and touts Sean and Alexandra Parker’s green cred.

That's a little curious, since the way commission staffers write up the violations suggests that violating the Coastal Act is serious, that digging unnatural ponds is a bad idea, that adding sediment into waterways where fish spawn is bad for wildlife and that building stone fences without a permit over the roots of redwoods could harm the trees’ roots and the ecosystem.

Still, it's not like the commission’s lead regulator or his staff explain why it didn’t stop Parker’s construction when it was discovered before the wedding. (I don’t think the Coastal Act was going to leave the state on the hook for Emma Watson’s plane ticket.) And could the Coastal Commission really not have known for six years that a popular campground was closed? Guess they don’t have Google searches.

“Move fast, break things” is Facebook’s expression of the hacker way.  It’s a great mantra for achieving a fast rise from  nimble startup to global behemoth. But does a huge check after the fact mean it’s OK to do that to California’s coast? 

We'll have a chance to hear more about what regulators think on this subject soon enough. On Friday, June 14, coastal commissioners will consider whether to approve the deal that their staff is recommending. 

Until then, you can read the California Coastal Commission's report on the wedding, and the settlement: 

Move Fast. Break Things. by Sam Biddle

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