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A Lasting Legacy : Merritt Adamson Jr.'s Land Dealings Changed Malibu Forever

March 16, 1986|JUDY PASTERNAK and JILL STEWART | Times Staff Writers

In the early decades of this century, there was just one owner of Rancho Malibu Topanga Sequit and her name was May Knight Rindge.

The heart of her 17,000-acre domain was an old Spanish land grant, bought by her late husband in 1891. The property stretched west of Santa Monica and Topanga, along 25 miles of coastline. The rancho reached as far as three miles into the Santa Monica Mountains.

May Rindge did not welcome outsiders. She fought whatever might bring them. She thwarted the Southern Pacific's plans to run a railroad by the ranch. And she battled for years against the Pacific Coast Highway that she knew would cut a swath through her property.

By 1962, when her grandson took charge of the family lands, times had changed.

Merritt Huntley Adamson Jr., son of Merritt Huntley Adamson Sr. and Rhoda Rindge Adamson, became the one person most responsible for bringing new residents and visitors to the one-time rancho, now known simply as Malibu.

Adamson, who died two weeks ago of cancer at age 59, made decisions that changed the region forever.

During his quarter-century as manager of the remaining Rindge-Adamson lands, he donated the core of a campus to Pepperdine University. He built a mobile home park, a recreational vehicle park and condominiums.

He subdivided land and sold it for homes. He sold thousands of acres to the state and federal governments for open parkland that would both preserve wildlife and attract tourists.

And less than two months before his death, his company received long-sought permission from the California Coastal Commission to build Malibu's first large hotel.

With those actions, he placed himself in the center of the gale-strength emotions that swirl around the issue of Malibu's growth.

Though Merritt Adamson was by all accounts a private, quiet man, he acquired bitter critics and staunch defenders.

His opponents accused him of putting profit before the community's best interests, of bringing in too many people for Malibu's fragile road system, rugged hillsides and storm-battered beaches. Critics charged that he developed his vast holdings in a piecemeal fashion, with no overall concept in mind.

He was wounded by such attacks, his close friends said. He believed he was unfairly maligned.

In fact, Adamson would have preferred to keep the family land a working cattle ranch, his friends said.

His second choice apparently would have been to carry out a master plan he and his partners--his two sisters--secretly commissioned in 1965: a proposal by prominent architect William L. Pereira to develop much of Malibu with clusters of houses set off by huge natural preserves from surrounding large estates.

"He loved that plan," said Louis Busch, Adamson's real estate agent for more than 40 years and a friend since both were young men.

"They never unveiled the plan," Busch said. "They tried to use some of his ideas, but the timing didn't let it happen."

What came between Adamson and his fondest hopes, his friends agreed, was taxes. In the 1970s, when land values skyrocketed, so did property taxes.

"His taxes were millions, just to hold onto that land," said Hal Marlowe, Adamson's lobbyist to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

So he had to sell some. And he had to make the rest pay for itself.

"Faced with that," said Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, "he wanted an orderly transition from undeveloped to controlled zoning."

"He certainly did not submit (development) requests in great volume," said Supervisor Pete Schabarum. "Those requests he did submit were not even close to overdevelopment, in

most people's opinion. Of course, Malibu residents had another idea."

Malibu's beaches, canyons and hills, filled with family history, clearly occupied a special place in Adamson's heart.

He grew up at what is now Malibu Surfrider State Beach, in the family's summer home, with its bath house and pool, outdoor patio fireplace and tile fashioned in the Rindge's Malibu Pottery.

The Depression had plunged the family beef ranch into bankruptcy. Trustees were selling large parcels of the rancho to pay the creditors.

But the Adamsons had also launched a dairy. Called Adohr Farms (his mother Rhoda's name spelled backward), it kept the family solvent.

Young Merritt loved the Guernsey herd, which became known worldwide for its quality and size. But he was allergic to the cattle; his skin broke out whenever he drew near the livestock.

Still, he intended to enter the family business. He got his degree in animal husbandry at University of California, Davis, and dreamed of raising his own beef cattle. In his mind, the remaining Rindge-Adamson properties would be forever open range.

Name in Mind

He confided to his friend Busch that he even had a name picked out: the Moonlight Cattle Co. "That," said Busch, "was when beef was in vogue. That was before cholesterol."

While he was still in school, in 1949, his father, Merritt Sr., shot himself to death, apparently despondent over his failing health after a stroke.

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