One road curves along a hilltop, a second road follows the base. And in between, a wooden house with large glass windows juts out from the slope. Another of the Malibu mountain cabin lots has been developed.
About 5,400 such postage-stamp parcels were created in this rugged portion of the western Santa Monica Mountains more than 60 years ago. Originally, they were intended as sites for tents and rustic cabins, weekend havens for city dwellers who loved to camp in their spare time. The cabin lots were so inexpensive that some were given away with newspaper subscriptions as a marketing gimmick.
Now, though, with the population of the Los Angeles Basin soaring and land--especially Malibu land--at a premium, "people have these legal lots and they want to build their homes there," county planning Director Norman Murdoch said.
About 1,400 people have already done so, transforming clusters of camp sites into 14 communities known to planners as "rural villages." These villages are scattered throughout the mountainous portions of the Malibu Coastal Zone, from Fernwood in the east to Monte Nido and El Nido in the west and Malibu Bowl to the north.
But what concerns planners the most is the fate of about 3,600 cabin lots that are still vacant. If a home is built on each, everyone agrees, the results could be disastrous.
The look of the countryside would be dramatically changed. Such an increase in houses would require new streets and sewage disposal systems. Many homes in the hilly terrain would be difficult to protect from brush fires and landslides, and such natural catastrophes would be costly for county taxpayers.
For now, the empty lots in the rural villages are well-disguised. "See that side yard," said Elizabeth Wiechec, executive director of the Mountains Restoration Trust, as she drove through Monte Nido recently. "That's a lot." Nearby, a corral covers three lots. "See that tree," Wiechec said. "That's a lot, too. And each lot can hold a house."
Even Murdoch, an outspoken advocate of property rights, believes that cabin lots, which are smaller than an acre and generally on steep terrain, "are not that suitable for intensive development."
The disagreements come over the best way to prevent construction.
For more than seven years, the state's solution has been its "transfer of development credit" program. The program requires builders who subdivide land along the coast or construct multi-unit dwellings there to buy development rights to cabin lots. The purchase of these "credits" is meant to prevent development on cabin lots, directing construction toward the coastal terrace and away from the mountains.
About 400 cabin lots have been removed as sites for development through the sale of credits, which run from $12,600 to $17,000 each.
The program has been bitterly opposed by county officials as too complicated, expensive and unsuccessful. Some state coastal commissioners agree. "I think it puts the burden on the wrong people," said Commissioner Dorill Wright.
Developers along the coast say the cost of the credits gets passed along to home buyers or apartment tenants, which increases the already high price of living near the Malibu beach.
County planner Robert Hoie contends that many of the credits sold are for lots that would never be developed anyway because of other restrictions in the land-use plan--notably a formula, added at the state's request, that scales down the size of buildings allowed on steep lots.
Indeed, Coastal Commission calculations show that only about 1,200 of the lots are expected to be buildable under the new plan. Murdoch proposed a cap of 1,200 units in the rural villages and ending the transfer credit program. Instead, the county would encourage people to voluntarily put several lots together for one house.
But in March, the Coastal Commission voted in a series of cases to continue the transfer credit program, at least until the county has created specific ordinances to carry out the land-use plan's guidelines.
The vote was also a signal to county officials that the ordinances will not gain approval unless the rules include some kind of guarantee that cabin-lot construction will be limited.
The 1,200-unit building cap for rural villages is not enough by itself to control development in the mountains, said commissioners, who have expressed concern that it could be legally challenged as arbitrary. And they worry that a 6,582-unit cap for the entire Malibu zone could also be challenged if the mountain lots are developed while other property owners are permitted to subdivide land in the expectation that someday they can build there.
The problem, Wiechec said, "is that no one has gone through and looked at the (cabin) lots one by one" to decide which are buildable.
"I can show the most improbable sites for houses . . . that have houses on them," she said.
But Hoie said, "We can't check each lot. It would cost more than each lot is worth just to survey to find out where these things are."