Moving Forward: Mary & Phil Bettencourt – Cayucos Land Conservancy

Written by Judy Salamacha

July 16, 2023

Mary and Greg Bettencourt, pictured on vacation in Florence, Italy, serve on the Cayucos Land Conservancy Board of Directors. Photo submitted

When I was well into my career in Kern County, I served on The Nature Conservancy’s locally based committee to help advocate its worldwide mission. I managed the public affairs and marketing department for a large corporate development business that master planned neighborhoods. Among other duties, I was encouraged to become involved in diverse community groups to determine and monitor the company’s annual giving. I learned the concept of conservancy could be the bridge to bring balance to communities developed with thoughtful advance planning. Conservancy is defined as an organization that works to protect animals, plants, and natural resources especially by purchasing and caring for areas of land.

We moved permanently to the Central Coast 21 years ago.  We had a vacation condo in Cayucos several years before we moved and when I met Greg and Mary Bettencourt, I discovered Cayucos had an active land conservancy program that had a track record of living up to its name and stated purpose. Their website www.cayucoslandconservancy.org states the group is committed to the enduring preservation of the rural greenbelt that surrounds Cayucos, California. 

Between the two of them, Greg and Mary have served more than 50 years on CLC’s board of directors. Launched in 1999 Greg is a founding member, served as president of the board from 2004 through 2012 and is currently Lands Committee Chair. Mary has been membership chair since 2004. Recently I met with them to learn more about one of their projects since I would not be able to attend CLC’s Hillside Parcel Tutorial, August 9 from 7-8:30 pm.   

“We work with willing owners who want to sell their property at a fair market value,” said Greg. CLC will also act as negotiator to secure the appropriate overseer to monitor the wildlands or if visitor-serving, manage public access and protect the habitat.  Successful acquisitions over the years have been Estero Bluffs State Park, San Geronimo Ranch, and Harmony Headlands. The boards current projects are the Hillside Lots above Cayucos and Toro Coast Preserve. 

“This (Hillside Lots) is an ongoing quest not an active campaign,” Greg wanted all to understand. The goal is to ultimately acquire all or most of the 1,600 lots. Currently CLC has approximately 25% or about 400. “Over the years many county leaders have agreed the area probably shouldn’t be built out. These lots were never surveyed, have no water and are on unstable land.” 

Mary said, “The lots are often referred to as paper lots.” In real estate terminology these are land parcels that can be bought and sold like other land properties, but the lots only exist on paper, and they are not buildable. She explained stories that have passed through generations of Cayucos residents say, “back in the 1920s sometime, someone took out a piece of paper and drew lots on the hillsides above Cayucos. Realtors would sell a lot in the Cayucos’ numbered streets and give away a ‘paper lot’ with the sale.”

 When CLC decided to acquire the hillside lots as a project, the group determined a fair market value of $2,500 for each parcel. They let it be known CLC was interested in preserving the hillsides where the lots had been ‘sold’ or bonused. Offers to buy were available for those with appropriate paper lot title.  

Greg explained the challenges CLC has met. Typically, families will discover the paperwork during the time the family will is read. Others discovered it buried in files long forgotten about. The lots were never surveyed so it is very difficult to determine where lots cross over onto another lot. Most of them are 50X100X40 and would be too small to develop anything significant or livable. County building codes require 1.5 acres to build, so one needs several lots. They are also outside the area for urban services. The County calls them rural lands. In fact, the area’s road is a Cal Fire access road. And they still must find their own water.

“Some will decide to sell, but others decide to keep it because $2,500 isn’t much to them and they can say they own a piece of Cayucos,” Greg added. “Others decide they can save it for their grandchildren, who might be able to build on it someday.”

Regarding monitoring the area, including the 400 lots CLC already owns, Greg said, “As much as we’d like to put more benches and hiking trails in the area, we don’t want to infringe on another’s property.  There is so much unknown. We take it step by step.” The group has a hike at least annually to check the status of the area. When they get reports of illegal use activities, they report it to the Advisory Council. “We’ve lobbied our County Supervisors to put a gate up – not to keep out the hikers, but to curb the dumping, motorcycle usage and illegal camping. We intend to good neighbors.”

 So, check your files. Maybe you’ll discover a paper that looks like a deed of property ownership in Cayucos you didn’t know about. Curious to learn more or collect $2,500? CLC Board member, Louisa Smith, will help guide willing sellers through the arduous research process. You can meet her and other members of CLC August 9 at their annual Hillside Lots Tutorial. Register at hello@cayucoslandconservancy.org.

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