The Big Sur Tower? Feds unveil plan to move surveillance equipment to the South Coast

An example of the type of tower that’s going up in Big Sur, from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection | Screen shot


UPDATE: The Monterey County Planning Commission will hear a report and may make an “advisory recommendation” about the Customs and Border Protection proposal to erect an 80-foot high surveillance tower  when the commission meets Wednesday. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. but the proposal is the final item on the agenda. To follow the meeting via  Zoom, click the following link on Wednesday: The public can also listen by phone at 1-669-900-6833; and then when prompted enter Meeting ID Access Code 937 6730 1320. Public comments  can be sent to  the County Resource Management Agency at by 2:00 p.m. on the Tuesday prior to the Commission meeting. 

By Kate Woods Novoa

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is building a temporary surveillance tower meant to provide “security and coastal protection” at a remote site in Big Sur.

News of the proposed tower at Lucia Ranch, 50 miles south of Carmel, did not reach Big Sur until last Tuesday, when the South Coast Big Sur Land Use Advisory Committee heard an “informational” presentation about the project.

Neighbors adjacent to Lucia Ranch, including former Rep. Sam Farr, said they weren’t aware of the proposal until after Tuesday’s meeting.

The 80-foot tower would apparently test technology the agency has developed in an effort to capture real-time photographs and video of boats up to 24 miles out to sea. If working correctly, the surveillance would detect packages, people and weapons on the vessels.

Documents presented to the Big Sur committee indicate that the solar-powered tower relies on “maritime radar” and other technology that “automatically detects, tracks and identifies watercraft of various sizes crossing open water between international waters and the U.S. shoreline.”

In a letter to the state Coastal Commission, a CBP representative said the tower is meant to “provide continuing security and coastal protection” and that more of them could be installed in other regions of the coast.

Oddly, after identifying the site, the CBP’s letter notes that “the strategy and actual placement of the system is For Official Use Only and is Law Enforcement Sensitive information.”

According to the letter, the CBP is leasing a relatively small bit of property at Lucia Ranch for one year. The agency has already been told by federal administrators that the project meets Federal Coastal Zone Management Act provisions. But the agency is asking the state Coastal Commission to determine if it meets state regulations.

County officials initially thought that surrounding landowners had been told about the proposal. It’s possible that another informational meeting will be held next month so that neighbors can hear directly from the CBP officials.

Mike Watson of the state Coastal Commission said his agency could make its administrative decision around mid-June on whether the proposal meets state coastal guidelines.

Paul Schmidt, the CBP project manager, has not responded to two requests for comment. Ken Harlan, the owner of Lucia Lodge and Lucia Ranch, also has not responded to specific questions nor to a request for comment.

Monterey County Supervisor Mary Adams, who represents Big Sur, suggested that comments about the proposal be submitted to Mike Watson and Larry Simon of the Coastal Commission.

The Customs and Border Protection agency is a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and has responsibility for trade and travel. Among its enforcement duties is regulating smuggling of humans and drugs.

Letter: Tower likely violates Big Sur Land Use Plan

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Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog ( during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.