A lawsuit challenging the boundaries of the five-mile-wide protected Malibu coastal zone could open the door for a wave of housing developments along the inland slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains.
The suit, filed this week on behalf of two Santa Monica Mountains landowners, accuses the California Coastal Commission of exceeding its jurisdiction and of repeatedly altering or denying residential development permits in the hills and canyons south of Mulholland Highway.
Los Angeles County had been considering joining the lawsuit for several months at the behest of Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents San Fernando Valley areas within the five-mile-wide coastal zone and wants to remove about 6,000 parcels from the protected area.
However, San Mateo attorney Joseph Gughemetti, who filed the suit on behalf of the landowners, said that he could not wait any longer for the county to decide and named the county as a defendant in the suit because it approved the Malibu land use plan, which uses the disputed coastal zone boundary.
Coastal Commission members and environmentalists believe a court ruling reducing the protected boundaries could close off open areas earmarked for a proposed Santa Monica Mountains national park and remove land-use restrictions that prevent widespread residential development there.
"If a court rules that they can close off (large areas of) the Santa Monica Mountains from the public, we'll have a revolution," said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, one of the defendants named in the suit.
The conservancy is accused of illegally occupying part of the property owned by Quaker Corp., one the landowners, to create a small scenic overlook for the public. Edmiston denied the charge.
"This fight has been going on since the inception of the Coastal Act, so I'm not surprised by the suit," said Robert Franco, vice chairman of the commission. "Developers always dispute the boundary because they want to build homes in the coastal zone without certain restrictions. But our job is to protect it."
Although the lawsuit focuses on 432 acres of land near the intersection of Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Road owned by Michael T. Ghosn and Quaker Corp., Gughemetti alleges that the entire protected zone stretches well beyond the boundaries approved under the 1976 Coastal Act.
Gughemetti claims that the boundary was supposed to be drawn at the first major ridge near the coast, or five miles from the coast, whichever was closer to the ocean. But he said that the boundary maps completed by the Coastal Commission staff greatly exceed the limit and have forced developers beyond the boundary to meet the commission's stringent land-use requirements.
The suit seeks to strip away about one-third of the Malibu coastal zone boundary.
Gughemetti said the suit could affect numerous landowners along the coastal zone who have wanted to develop their property but have been unable to meet the "impossible requirements" imposed by the commission. Gughemetti served as a consultant for the county in drafting a land use plan that was rejected by the Coastal Commission in 1982.
"The reason these two owners are in the lead in this is that they are so far away from the ocean that there is a major intervening ridge line that is two to three miles closer to the ocean than they are," he said. This suit "would establish that the first major ridge line is the test for the boundary. And for all those properties in the area, jurisdiction will go back to the county, where it belongs."
Quaker Corp. for nine years has sought permits to develop about 272 acres along the disputed boundary, but, according to the lawsuit, the company's land has been targeted by the state Parks and Recreation Department for public acquisition.
When negotiations between the two parties collapsed, the suit alleges, the Coastal Commission "used its planning and development process to interfere with, defer, or preclude the resident development" of the property.
However, the lawsuit goes well beyond the issue of coastal zone boundaries, alleging that an unnamed member of the California Coastal Commission extorted political contributions in exchange for approval of Quaker's proposed residential development.
Coastal Commission members vehemently denied the accusations, saying that the charge is a wild attempt to smear the agency and cloak the real issue of protected coastal boundaries.
"That is absolutely ridiculous," responded commission member Madelyn Glickfeld. "In no way are any of our decisions based on contributions. The people have to look at the antics of Mr. Gughemetti to see what is really happening here."
Glickfeld said that changing the coastal boundary would harm the fragile watershed lands that drain into the sea, adding that if anything, "the coastal zone is too limited, not too large."