One month ago, at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, the California Coastal Commission and the county Board of Supervisors reached agreement on a land-use plan for Malibu.
The development guidelines, narrowly approved by the commission on a 7-5 vote, sent two county planners and a county attorney to the hotel bar for a celebratory round of drinks. Meanwhile, clusters of environmentalists and homeowners sat glumly around tables in the hotel restaurant.
The county officials saw the newly adopted plan as a sign that they would not have to make any more concessions to the state than they already had. The plan's opponents saw it as a flawed document that would allow far too many buildings and too much traffic along the Malibu shoreline and in the Santa Monica Mountains.
But the 3 1/2 years of negotiations, meetings and public hearings that led to that decision have not ended debate over the plan.
State and county officials, environmentalists, residents and developers are still trying to clarify the land-use guidelines. A number of test cases are expected to come before the coastal panel in the next several months--the first on Thursday at its San Diego meeting.
Some critics of the plan are considering legal action.
And environmentalists also intend to monitor the county's work on ordinances to carry out the guidelines. Those regulations must be approved by the state before the Coastal Commission relinquishes control over development in Malibu.
'Lack of Specificity'
"One of our principal concerns about the . . . plan that was adopted was the lack of specificity," said Dan Popper, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. "Maybe we can make sure that the implementation is spelled out in some detail."
Whatever the means, the plan's detractors are not surrendering.
"We're still very concerned about the land-use plan," said Leon Cooper, president of the Malibu Township Council, a civic group representing about 1,000 Malibu families. "After all these years of fighting, we're not going to stand idly by and let the county continue to throw one development after another at us."
Most of the questions center on how to limit construction on thousands of small lots in the Santa Monica Mountains--one of the major issues that kept the state and the county apart for so long.
In December, the coastal panel bowed to the county's wishes and eliminated from the land-use plan a state program called Transfer of Development Credits, which was designed to preserve open space and keep the rugged hillsides from being overbuilt.
The program required builders who subdivide land to buy development rights to hillside lots of less than one acre, which were created in the 1920s for cabins and tents. The purchase of these "credits," for about $15,000 each, would essentially prevent future building on the cabin lots, directing construction toward the coastal terrace and away from the mountains.
But county Planning Director Norman Murdoch said the program was too complicated and pushed for a simple 6,582-unit limit on development in Malibu instead.
The Coastal Commission's staff protested that abandoning the program would undermine that building cap by leaving it vulnerable to legal challenge--and that could lead to more construction than Malibu's fragile ecology can support.
Shift in Vote
Last year, the commission upheld the program. But with four new commissioners since the last round of negotiations, the majority agreed with the county, paving the way for a deal.
Thursday, the guidelines will be tested by the first Malibu subdivision request since adoption of the land-use plan.
The owner of 11 acres in Corral Canyon in western Malibu wants to split the property into two 5 1/2-acre lots. The owner's real estate agent, Charles Tarrats, said his client, Harry Segeb of Central Diagnostic Lab, intends to build only one house there, but "maybe sometime in the future, another owner might have use for two lots."
The coastal staff has recommended that in exchange for approval, the owner should guarantee that a cabin lot elsewhere will not be developed, in the form of a transferred development credit, or the promise that some of his other land will never be built upon, or some other method that commissioners devise, said Steve Scholl, who supervised the Malibu plan for the coastal staff.
Coastal commissioners "said they wouldn't require (the program), but they didn't necessarily rule it out, as we read it," Scholl said. "This will give us a further reading on their posture."
Cooper, of the township council, said, "I am not only appreciative of the staff's position, but I'm very strongly in support of it. . . . These problems are going to continue, not go away."
But Peter Ireland, Malibu field deputy for county Supervisor Deane Dana, said such conditions should no longer be imposed. The coastal staff, Ireland said, "is really coming back again and trying to reopen the issue and set a permit precedent that was not included in the plan."
Murdoch agreed, but added that after December's decision, "I'm not looking for a fight."
Meanwhile, some developers whose coastal permits were granted while the credits program was still in effect are wondering if they still need to make their purchases. Martin Blank, attorney for Quaker Corp., said his client has paid more than $70,000 toward credits so he can build 34 houses on 292 acres near Mulholland Drive. But Blank said his client wondered if the firm must pay $223,000 still owed.
The answer, according to both county and state planners, is yes. But Tom Crandall, director of the coastal panel's South Coast District, said he expects several builders to ask the Coastal Commission in coming months for permit amendments relieving them of the requirement.