Concerned about potential erosion and stream pollution, the California Coastal Commission staff has warned a Malibu landowner to stop clearing and grading his hillside homestead next to the Cold Creek Canyon Preserve.
The brush removal and grading, done without a required permit, has angered the preserve's owners, who fear the effect that winter rain could have on the bare soil.
"When the rains come, then this is going to turn into a mass of mud," said Elizabeth Wiechec, executive director of Mountains Restoration Trust, which owns the 600-acre preserve. "And, if you get a lot of rain all at once, it's going to be moving mud."
But Tom Voiss, who owns the 25-acre site at 808 Stunt Road, said he has done nothing illegal.
"I didn't grade (the land)," he said. "All we did was brush the land. You don't need a permit to brush the land."
Voiss, who formerly owned the 540-acre Saddle Creek Ranch across the road, said he plans to build his home on the land and has already erected fences and corrals for his Peruvian show horses.
Commission staff member Jim Hare said the commission requires permits for all construction and alterations, including grading, brush removal and building corrals, on property within the coastal zone. Voiss, he added, applied for a building permit for the same site three years ago and should know about the requirement.
"He's definitely well aware of the Coastal Commission and that he's within the coastal zone," Hare said. "So there's no way he can plead ignorance."
Nancy Cave, the commission's statewide enforcement coordinator, said the work done on the property was much more than clearing brush, although she stopped short of calling it grading.
However, she said she has evidence that bulldozers were used to move what she called substantial amounts of earth on the property and that the hills' natural contours were replaced with artificial ones.
"If you want to pin me down on that and say that's grading, then (you can say) that's grading," she said.
Cave said her staff sent Voiss a mailgram on Aug. 21 telling him to stop all work on the property and that she had called Voiss' attorney, Richard Moneymaker, on Sept. 1 to make sure Voiss got the message.
Hare said he mailed a letter to Moneymaker on Tuesday warning that if Voiss continues to work on the property, the commission would seek a temporary restraining order against him.
Voiss said Tuesday he has not heard anything from the Coastal Commission and will continue to erect fences and install water and electrical lines on the property.
Cave said if the commission were to take Voiss to court, he could face a $10,000 fine and be required to replant the vegetation that was destroyed.
The neighboring Cold Creek Canyon Preserve surrounds one of the few year-round streams in the Santa Monica Mountains and will be used for long-term ecological studies by the University of California, Wiechec said.
She said she is worried that dirt running off Voiss' land will clog the stream and disturb the preserve's ecosystem.
Voiss dismissed Wiechec's concerns about erosion and potential landslides, saying that he is installing an irrigation system and will plant grass to hold the soil in place before the winter rains.
Wiechec said she hopes the commission forces Voiss to replant the vegetation, but said she doubts the land can be restored.
"You take the eggshell off a hard-boiled egg, and you can't really put it back on," she said. "He has done irreparable damage. It will never be the same as it was."