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Chasing After the American Dream Led to Nightmare

December 27, 1987|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

Each holiday season, the memories come flooding back to Calvin Barginear, reminders of a once-bright beginning that has dissolved into nightmare without end.

He pursued the American dream; now he's been consumed by it. He planned for the future; now he's haunted by the past.

Barginear worked all his life and saved enough money to buy some land. He planned to build a new family home, sell the remaining property and retire on the profit.

Today he is bankrupt, faced with more than $1 million in bills and no way to pay them. He lost his once-thriving business and has been unable to hold other jobs. His wife has been forced to return to work. He is locked in a court battle with Los Angeles County that he says is his last gasp to pull himself out of the quagmire.

The questions hound him. What went wrong? How could it have happened? And why? Mostly why.

Ran Gas Station

"I want to put my life back together, even though I know I can't," the 52-year-old Barginear said. "Not completely, not again."

It started simply enough. Barginear and his wife, Barbara, 50, were longtime Malibu residents who operated a local tow-truck business and gas station. They worked alongside each other. They saved and borrowed enough money to purchase a 35.8-acre foothill property off Latigo Canyon Road in Malibu, where they hoped to build a new family home.

But soon they got squeezed between two uncompromising bureaucracies, and their plans began gradually slipping from their grasp. Their simple project grew ever more complicated, slowly disappearing under piles of red tape.

The county Regional Planning Commission gave them tentative approval for a 12-parcel subdivision in 1980, but the final approval was never granted because the California Coastal Commission refused to grant them coastal permits for the property.

The county would not approve the project without a coastal permit. The Coastal Commission would not grant the permit because the county changed its land-use plan for Malibu and the plan did not allow for the Barginears' 12-lot subdivision.

Planning Oversight

County planners admitted that it was an oversight, but the Coastal Commission relied on the critical land-use document. Unless the county changed its plans, the Coastal Commission would only grant them permits for four lots.

County planners said they failed to include the Barginears' property because they assumed that the Coastal Commission would honor the state Map Act, which protected many already approved subdivisions.

However, attorneys for the Coastal Commission said they were required to enforce the new land-use plan "at face value."

County officials who interceded on behalf of the Barginears were told by the Coastal Commission that the family was a victim of "dual planning requirements."

But their attorney says that the Barginears were just victims.

"This is one of those tragic cases that I hope we never see (again) in the history of California," the lawyer, James Robie said. "The laws kept changing on them, and no one would budge an inch. It's been a disaster."

Barginear said they were told by county planners that his land would be "grandfathered in" by laws protecting previously approved projects. However, coastal commissioners and environmentalists wanted to remove any loopholes that would allow large developments--even though no one opposed Barginear's project. Again, the Coastal Commission said it would not budge unless the Barginears' lots were shown in the county land-use plan.

However, rather than amend its plan, the county decided not to pursue the matter, saying that if it changed the document, other developers would be seeking similar amendments to shortcut the approval process. As a result, numerous projects that were thrown into limbo during the same period were abandoned.

The Barginears refused to give up. Late in 1982, the county told them that they could develop a nine-lot subdivision. Once again, the Coastal Commission said it would not approve it unless it was reflected in the land-use documents. Disgusted and determined to get his 12 lots, Barginear let the nine-lot application expire.

His former attorney, Charles Greenberg, said that if Barginear had taken his case for nine lots directly to the coastal commissioners, he believes they would have approved it. County planner Bob Hoie said "it was all but certain" that Barginear could have received permission for nine lots.

'Probably Should Have Settled'

"He was fighting for every last unit, and I'm not sure he was ever in a position to do that," Hoie said. "People in that position, who decide to fight something all the way through the courts, usually have the resources to do that. In hindsight, he probably should have settled."

In 1984, he hired Burtram Johnson, a land-use consultant, to act as a trouble-shooter between the various agencies. But nothing changed.

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