Deciding it would look "very silly" to do otherwise, the state Coastal Commission has approved a $20-million expansion of Hughes Aircraft Co.'s research laboratory in Malibu Canyon.
The commission's 11-0 vote came Wednesday despite opposition from its own staff and objections from the Malibu Township Council, a civic group representing about 1,000 families.
The vote also ended speculation that Hughes would close its research-and-development lab--the only large industrial complex in Malibu--and move to a community that would welcome the company.
"If they couldn't expand, they didn't see any alternative but to move the facility," said attorney Dale Neal, who represented Hughes.
Most of the opposition at the commission's meeting in Marina del Rey revolved around environmental concerns, including water quality, waste disposal, changes in the area's scenic profile, the location of the proposed expansion and increased traffic.
But Neal and George Smith, director of the research lab, apparently dispelled concerns during a presentation to the commission designed to show that the expansion would have little, if any, effect on the environment between the beach and the 26-year-old complex in the hills above Pepperdine University.
By the time Neal and Smith finished, Commissioner Michael Wornum was lauding Hughes as being on the "cutting edge of technology" and calling its researchers "the ballet artists of science."
"It is people-oriented and that's what we need," Wornum said. "I think we would look very silly to turn it down."
The commission would be "totally asinine" if it forced Hughes to expand operations at another location, Commissioner Dorill Wright said. The equipment in the labs also provides valuable tax revenue to the county, Wright said.
"I just cannot agree with the staff (recommendation)," Commissioner George Shipp said. "It's almost like they wrote it on Mars and stuck it in here."
Leon Cooper, spokesman for the Malibu Township Council, agreed that "the Hughes proposal has significant merit" but asked the commission to impose a moratorium on Malibu development pending the adoption of a coastal development plan.
"The only point I was trying to make is that the commission should not decide in a vacuum whether the Hughes proposal has merit or lacks it," he said.
Hughes also received commission approval to increase its work force on any one shift to 550. Hughes, with 479 day employees and 22 more at night, expects to add about 20 workers with the expansion, Smith said.
The construction of a four-level, 89,142-square-foot building will include research labs, an auditorium and a cafeteria. The project, scheduled for completion in 1987, also will include 142 new parking spaces, extensive landscaping and a significant increase in the capacity of two septic systems for industrial and domestic waste water, Smith said.
Although the commission's recently adopted land-use plan put an annual cap of 30,000 square feet on new commercial space in Malibu, commissioners said the limit did not apply in this case because Hughes is a "unique" research-and-development firm and not an industry in the traditional sense.
The 143,000 square feet of laboratories and offices now at the site are "suffering from severe overcrowding," Neal said.
Researchers are conducting experiments and tests on lasers, fiber optics, artificial intelligence and space vehicle propulsion. Hughes developed the first laser in Malibu shortly after the laboratories opened in 1960, Smith said.
The Township Council has criticized the piecemeal approval of projects when Malibu still lacks a local coastal program to set development standards. Malibu residents, the county and state have been debating the growth issue for years. Cooper said the commission's support for Hughes will send pro-development signals to General Motors Corp. and other companies with projects in the planning stages.
General Motors wants to build a research lab across the Pacific Coast Highway from Pepperdine University, and Pepperdine wants to expand too. The county already has approved plans by the Adamson Cos. for a 300-room hotel on nearby property.
The commission staff expressed serious reservations about allowing Hughes to increase the discharge of industrial waste water by 200% because of its cumulative effects on the ground throughout the Malibu Civic Center area.
But Neal called the issue a "red herring" and said the county never has considered Hughes' discharge of water used for air conditioning as potentially dangerous.
There will be a "modest increase" in the use of chemicals, but Hughes has them transported by truck to a disposal site in Santa Barbara, company officials said.