A Sense of Place

(The following text is taken from the 2013 Comprehensive Environmental Plan of The Sea Ranch, authored by the Planning Committee of The Sea Ranch Association.)

A half-century ago a visionary developer and a group of like-minded architects and designers conceived a grand experiment called "The Sea Ranch." Their challenge was to demonstrate that people can inhabit a beautiful and fragile land located along a wild stretch of the California coast without destroying it. Adherence to their original architectural and design concepts resulted in the evolution of an "intentional community" that is unique on the California coast, if not the world. It is the willingness of The Sea Ranch community, past and present, to engage in informed planning for its future, and to instill in its membership an enduring commitment to environmental stewardship and community service, that makes this experiment successful.

Today's Sea Ranch community is a product of its geography, geology, design philosophy, environmental values, and participatory governance. Sea Ranchers share a "sense of place" that reflects their deep connection to the land, commitment to the founding principles, and an extraordinary spirit of volunteerism and community involvement.

The Land

The remote, rugged ten-mile strip of coastline that comprises The Sea Ranch would, to most developers, seem an unlikely place to create a new community. The area is difficult to reach by road, virtually impossible by boat, and limited in services and amenities. It is subject to wildfires, floods, and tsunamis, and battered by persistent spring and summer winds and severe winter storms. In addition, for at least 45 million years the region has been seismically active. Lands comprising The Sea Ranch lie within a half mile of one of the largest fault zones in the Western Hemisphere, the San Andreas, which parallels the south fork of the Gualala River. Moreover, a group of active north-south trending faults is located just 1-2 miles off-shore.

The geographical isolation, intense site and climate conditions, and a historic susceptibility to earthquakes posed significant development constraints, but architect and planner Al Boeke was undaunted. On his initial flyover of the historic Ohlson Ranch in the early 1960s he was inspired, not deterred, by the majestic, untamed confluence of surf, ocean bluffs, perennial streams, forests, and wildlife. Indeed, the striking beauty of the landscape and the richness of its flora and fauna stirred his imagination and still serve as the fundamental chords of the powerful siren song that attracts visitors and residents to The Sea Ranch.

The land is home to a diverse flora, extending from the ocean strand, bluffs and sand dunes to the headlands, coastal and upper terraces, and finally to the redwood and fir forests. Over 480 species, subspecies and varieties are represented, nearly 70% of which are native. TSR wildlife is equally diverse, abundant, and captivating. Common offshore species include both resident and migratory whales, sea lions, dolphins, harbor seals, fish, abalone, and other plentiful sea life, while tide pools support sea urchin, shrimp, and a wide variety of convergent marine life. Forest, meadow, and riparian communities include river otters, black-tailed deer, raccoon, fox, jackrabbit, skunk, opossum, gray squirrel, and chipmunk. Bobcat, cougar, wild pig, and occasionally bear also call The Sea Ranch their home. Over 220 species of birds have been sighted at The Sea Ranch, including, most commonly, pelican, gull, cormorant, California quail, Stellar's jay, bluebird, black phoebe, sparrow, finch, woodpecker, marsh hawk, meadowlark, white-tailed kite, kestrel, osprey, hummingbird, red-tailed hawk, robin, swallow, raven, wild turkey, black oystercatcher, black turnstone, and turkey vulture. The Sea Ranch is also the northernmost wintering area for the Monarch butterfly.

This land, with its breathtaking vistas and rich biotic communities, both delights the eye and restores the spirit. It has been from the beginning, and continues to be to this day, a cornerstone of The Sea Ranch sense of place. Many who come here do so to commune with nature. Those who make it their home accept the responsibility to preserve and live harmoniously with other species that have adapted to the rigors of life on the northern California Coast.

The Covenant

A standing joke among urban planners is that developers often name their residential communities after that which they destroy. For the new Sea Ranch community, there would be no parallel street grids; no neat rows of "ranch-style" houses with fenced yards; no manicured lawns, no sidewalks or street lamps; no Greek columns or cupolas. There would be open space-lots of it-reserved in perpetuity. And the layout, form, and even colors of the built environment would be designed to blend with the natural surroundings. This novel development concept, known as "living lightly on the land," is the foundation of The Sea Ranch CC&Rs, as reflected in the often-quoted declaration:

"It must be assumed that all owners of property within The Sea Ranch, by virtue of their purchase of such property, are motivated by the character of the natural environment in which their property is located, and accept, for and among themselves, the principle that the development and use of The Sea Ranch must preserve that character for its present and future enjoyment by other owners.

It is also assumed that those who are entrusted with the administration of The Sea Ranch will discharge their trust in full recognition of that principle and, to the extent consistent therewith, will foster maximum individual flexibility and freedom of individual expression."

This covenant forms a second cornerstone of The Sea Ranch sense of place. It defines the appropriate relationship between people and the environment, and finds expression in its commitment to restoration, integration, and sustainable stewardship. The Sea Ranch designers prioritized restoration of the natural setting at the onset of their project. Extensive studies were conducted on native flora and fauna, soils and climate. Areas damaged by earlier logging were cleared of debris, overgrazed meadows replanted with thousands of trees, and native grasses and wildflowers reseeded. Construction, commencing with the award-winning Condominium One and Hedgerow Houses, sought to integrate architecture with nature, a goal which continues to the present day. The stewardship aspect of The Sea Ranch covenant acknowledged the dynamic character of the natural environment, and the ongoing responsibility of residents to maintain and manage the land for the benefit and enjoyment of all of its inhabitants, plant, animal and human.

The Community

A sense of place also means a sense of belonging. For most Americans, "home" is where one's forebearers set down roots, where one was born and raised, or where one had to relocate in order to make a living. For Sea Ranchers (Association members), becoming a part of this remote and beautiful community has always been a conscious choice. Though diverse in backgrounds and interests, members share a common bond with the land and the "magic" of living here. Countless Sea Ranchers describe, with uncanny similarity, their "love at first sight" encounter with this place, and the immediate decision to make it their part-time or full-time home. This almost visceral reaction, reminiscent of Al Boeke's first impressions, binds community members to the land and to one another. As noted in a Sea Ranch design brochure:

"Your ownership of property at The Sea Ranch indicates a strong awareness of the special qualities of the place. After all, you didn't have to come; you chose to come. For each owner this is a challenge and an opportunity" .

In the end, one of the greatest resources of The Sea Ranch is its people. The health and vitality of the community and its environment rely upon the ongoing service of hundreds of Association members who volunteer their time and skills to a wide variety of policy and operating committees, task forces, and service groups. This broad-based grassroots participation cross-cuts all aspects of life at The Sea Ranch, including finance, land use planning, landscape and vegetation management, community facilities, trails and recreation, infrastructure, communications, public safety, and preservation of native biotic communities.

The grand experiment that began some fifty years ago has so far been successful. The environment continues to be restored and nurtured. The founding covenants have guided development in harmony with the natural surroundings. And The Sea Ranch intentional community has attracted residents committed to these guiding principles. But the world is not static. Growth and change are inevitable, and challenges lie ahead. Build-out at The Sea Ranch, increasing tourism, changing lifestyles, forest conversions, development on adjacent lands, new east-west coastal access routes, changes in the supply and cost of energy, or even natural disasters will require the adoption of new planning and management strategies. In short, the experiment continues.