Any time Linda Palmer glances through the glass rear wall of her house on Mulholland Highway, she is reminded of why she moved to the western Santa Monica Mountains 13 years ago. Her backyard, a leafy, sun-streaked spot, is dominated by a thick-limbed sycamore and a two-horse corral.
Whenever she wants, she saddles up one of her geldings and rides a quarter of a mile to the nearest of the equestrian and hiking paths winding through the neighborhood.
There were trails in suburban Hidden Hills, her former home, but in the rugged mountains above Malibu "you can go farther and the landscape is much more exciting," Palmer said. The combination of canyon and coastal views, wild land and proximity to urban Los Angeles exists nowhere else.
Though Malibu is synonymous with beach to most people , the mountain territory is by far the largest portion of a 65,000-acre Malibu Coastal Zone protected by the Legislature under the Coastal Act of 1976. The zone extends five miles north from the shore, encompassing 53,000 acres of the Santa Monicas.
For nearly a decade, the region hung in limbo while Los Angeles County and the state Coastal Commission struggled to reach agreement on a Malibu land-use plan, a blueprint for development of the area's shoreline, flatlands and mountains. Most construction was put on hold while talks dragged on, with the county concentrating on property owners' rights and the state emphasizing environmental safeguards.
Late last year, though, a bargain was struck and a plan adopted. For the first time, the county and the state agreed on a vision for the future of this part of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Controversial changes are coming. The extent of those changes is not readily apparent in the 130-page document. The plan's policies are couched in dry bureaucratic jargon, but its many technical guidelines about grading, lot sizes and the siting of buildings could add up to a sizable impact on the mountains. The nature of that impact is a matter of debate between environmental activists and property owners.
"The canyons and hillsides were the most difficult part of the process," said Steve Scholl, who supervised the Malibu plan for the Coastal Commission. " . . . A lot of the beachfront's already built. The mountains still really are pretty open, surprisingly open. Maybe people felt the stakes were higher there."
About 2,200 houses are scattered through the entire mountain area of the zone. But other people want a share. Thousands of acres have been purchased for state and federal parks so inland residents can escape city crowds.
Thousands more are owned by individuals who want to build homes.
County Planning Director Norman Murdoch bills the new plan as "a creative compromise" among the competing interests of residents, would-be residents and visitors from around the Los Angeles Basin.
But the plan's design for the mountains has drawn fire from both flanks.
Residents and environmentalists say it doesn't offer enough protection against bulldozing and overbuilding that could scar the slopes, flatten peaks and silt canyon streams--endangering homes and affecting wildlife enough to alter the rural ambiance that lures people there in the first place.
Aspiring home builders say the plan is too restrictive. They add that the new bureaucracy it sets up will delay construction on their property even longer. Some of them are challenging the coastal zone boundary line, seeking to exclude more than 6,000 lots from special regulations. They point to a recent U. S. Supreme Court decision that property owners who are denied the use of their land by zoning restrictions are entitled to compensation. And they mutter threats about seeking damages in court.
The county expects to spend another year or two creating specific ordinances to put the plan into practice. Until those rules have been approved by the Coastal Commission, the state panel will keep final authority over building permits in the zone.
But the land-use plan now forms the basis for both county and commission decisions, so permit applicants generally know what to expect.
Under the plan, the number of houses in the Malibu mountains could more than double. The Coastal Commission estimates that the plan's guidelines would allow another 3,255 homes to be built in the hills. A 1,200-home limit has been placed on so-called "rural villages," where 5,400 tiny lots originally designed for cabins and tents were created during the 1920s.
The plan also calls for about 150 miles of public trails that will be donated by builders. Eight canyons and swaths of land connecting them have been designated for extra building restrictions to accommodate plants and animals.