by Alexis Madrigal
June 04, 2013
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Sean Parker's wedding to Alexandra Lenas is the perfect parable for Silicon Valley excess. (Getty Images/Michael Buckner)
Hey, if a billionaire couple wants to spend $10 million on their wedding, it’s neither all that surprising nor interesting, as far as I’m concerned. So, when news and statistics started to trickle out about Sean Parker’s wedding here in California—namely that it’d cost millions of dollars to create Kardashian-level over-the-topness—I was ready to chalk it up to the standard excesses of crazy rich people.
But that was before I read the California Coastal Commission’s report on the Parker wedding’s destructive, unpermitted buildout in a redwood grove in Big Sur. Parker and Neraida, the LLC he created to run his wedding, ended up paying $2.5 million in penalties for ignoring regulations. (Move fast. Break things.)
Here’s what the CCC says happened. Neraida cut a deal with the Ventana Inn, which is a private company that manages both a higher-end inn and a lower-end campground. The campground runs along Post Creek under massive redwood trees. While not wild, it is an ecologically sensitive area: Steelhead run through the creek and the trees are ancient. In 2007, the Inn closed the campground because of septic issues, though it kept all of its high-end units open. Pursuant to a 1980s deal that let the Inn expand, they were also required to maintain a public parking lot at Cadillac Flats, which offers a good jumping off point for hikers and backpackers. But they’d stopped doing so, using the lot as overflow parking for the Inn. You with me so far? Basically, what was supposed to be a facility that people of all incomes—including the general public—could visit had become a high-end resort with no camping or public parking. Still, it remained a beautiful place. It looked like this:
Enter Parker. He cut a deal with Ventana to use the previously closed campground exclusively for months. Without a single permit or any real thought about the area’s natural components, Parker’s crew began to build walls and water effects and fake ruins on the old campground. The CCC describes the changes:
The Parker Respondents proceeded to perform unauthorized development activities within the campground. Existing roads and campsites were graded and contoured to create the appearance of ruins. Stone gateways and walls were constructed. Staircases were crafted around existing habitat and redwood trees. An artificial pond was dug and installed. A stone bridge over the pond was constructed. Several elevated platforms were created, some adjacent to Post Creek (Exhibit 9). Over 100 potted trees and plants were partially planted within the existing road beds and campsites, and lighting was installed in the redwood forest. In addition to the unpermitted development, other items to facilitate the event have also been placed on the site including tents and generators.
Nothing says, “I love the Earth!” quite like bringing bulldozers into an old-growth forest to create a fake ruined castle. And to build this fantasy world on a spot that should have been open to regular old middle-class people: That makes it even better.
But perhaps, you might say, the Parker crew didn’t get permits, but at least they knew what they were doing, installing all this stuff in an ecologically sensitive area. But no, you’d be wrong there. The CCC continues:
The Parker Respondents did not install any erosion control measures or any BMPs when they commenced development within the campground. Structures, walls and elevated platforms have been constructed immediately adjacent to Post Creek with no setbacks employed. The Parker Respondents have recently installed temporary fencing in an attempt to reduce potential impacts to Post Creek, but most of the development occurred without any such erosion-control protections in place. Increased erosion resulting from hardscaping and vegetation removal along streams impairs riparian corridors, streams, and, ultimately, shallow marine waters by increased sedimentation. Increased sediment loads in streams and coastal waters can increase turbidity, thereby reducing light transmission necessary for photosynthetic processes, reducing the growth of aquatic plants. Additionally, structures have been built up to and around existing redwoods and vegetation within the campground (Exhibit 10). Beyond immediate physical damage to individual trees, failure to provide adequate development buffers from redwood trees can negatively impact the underground lignotubers by which redwoods clonally reproduce, thus impeding propagation. The unpermitted development has thus impacted the existing redwood forest habitat and has likely caused sedimentation of Post Creek.
Here’s what the site looked like during construction (note the stump in the pictures above and below). I think they call this disruption:
Here’s a poor old redwood that had to serve as an endpoint for a fake ruin because the most glorious forest in North America was not pretty enough for Sean Parker’s wedding:
I’m not a purist: Landscapes can get more beautiful with human intervention sometimes. Most landscapes we know have already been immeasurably altered by human behavior over the centuries. What’s rough about this particular situation is how wantonly Parker steamrolled structures, human and not human, legal and aesthetic.
To his credit, Parker paid up for the damage and said in a statement that he and his wife “always dreamed of getting married in Big Sur, one of the most magical places on Earth.” And weddings are great and I’m sure it was a good party.
But, of course, that’s also 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.
The old-guard Midwestern transplants like Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Bill Davidow—not to mention a lot of newbie social entrepreneurs—would be ashamed of this kind of grandstanding, and rightly so.
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology channel. He’s the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.