Cramped Style

How regulators derailed California's most environmentally progressive development.


The Sea Ranch coastal development, some 100 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, is probably the best-known attempt to address environmental issues with innovative architecture and private covenants. As the development's Chamber of Commerce puts it, the community has sought to "blend man-made structures with their natural setting, and to 'live lightly on the land.'"

The architects who designed the early buildings at The Sea Ranch not only fomented what has become known as the "Sea Ranch Style" but drove the creation of the legal covenants that defined the landscape and created the community that exists today. They advocated "a close relationship to nature and the use of natural materials"; they believed that "buildings can and should become a part of the encompassing landscape."

Thus, houses would be clustered and set well back from the bluffs to protect clear views of the land and sea. Roads and houses would be parallel to hedgerows, creating diagonal views of the ocean and taking advantage of natural windbreaks. No nonnative vegetation would be visible, cars would be kept from view to avoid reflections, natural materials would be used for exterior walls, houses would be kept to low heights, and there would be neither curbs nor sidewalks. In addition, 2,300 acres would be owned in common by the members of the Sea Ranch Association.

Today there are about 1,600 homes on the 4,000-acre property and about 600 undeveloped lots. The Sea Ranch has 500 permanent residents, and the Sea Ranch Association, which maintains and enforces the covenants through a design committee, has 1,500 members. According to Sea Ranch Realty, home prices start at about $400,000 and lot prices range from about $100,000 in the forests to $1 million for oceanfront property.

Short of a visit, the best way to experience the community's unique architecture is Jim Alinder's stunning photography in the recently published The Sea Ranch (Princeton Architectural Press). There are nearly 400 images in the book, 200 of them in color. The text, by architect Donlyn Lyndon, addresses why certain houses work with both the interior and exterior space they are given. Most houses, for example, are individually adapted to the contours of earth and vegetation.

Many of the most dramatic photos are shot from inside the homes looking out, giving a sense of individual taste as well as the beauty of the landscape. It is this desire to integrate people and nature—along with a private, contractual approach to achieving it—that markedly differentiates the Sea Ranch's designers from that other breed of planner, the regulator.

In that distinction lies the irony of The Sea Ranch. At the start, the building restrictions were remarkably successful, resulting in dwellings that were not only well suited to their location but comfortable to live in. The covenants may have been restrictive, but they were, after all, designed by architects who knew they had clients to please and homes to sell.

In the early 1970s, though, The Sea Ranch became a target for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, which didn't think people and nature should be mixed in this fashion and opposed any exclusive access to the shoreline, even by the "nature lovers" at The Sea Ranch. Their efforts led to the creation of the California Coastal Commission, a powerful new regulatory body set up to protect the state's coastline. The commission immediately imposed a building moratorium on The Sea Ranch, which lasted from 1973 to 1980.

To end the moratorium, The Sea Ranch had to agree to reduce the number of home sites from 5,200 to 2,300. At the start of the moratorium, there were 300 homes and 1,400 lots sold. The design and landscape restrictions, contrary to the fears of some real estate agents, were increasingly cited by buyers as a selling point. After eight years without building and a severe reduction in lots, however, The Sea Ranch was losing money hand over fist. When building finally did resume, the covenants were loosened considerably to generate a quick infusion of cash.

As a result, there are now effectively two Sea Ranches. As described by Lyndon, "The southern sectors, which were developed in the 1960s and 1970s, have an air of restraint and respect, their houses indeed in partnership with the land. In the northern meadows, houses put up after the early 1980s line up rigidly along the streets and form solid, view-blocking walls along the bluffs. Others protrude, exposed, from the forest above."

And that is how a state effort to protect coastlands derailed the most environmentally progressive development California had ever seen.