The California Coastal Commission this week voted to allow Pepperdine University to double its student enrollment and nearly triple the size of its seaside campus, saying that the educational benefits of the expansion outweighed its potential for extensive adverse effects on Malibu's environment.
In approving Pepperdine's long-range development plan by a 7-5 vote, the commission rejected its own staff recommendation that the university confine all new construction to the 225 acres that it has already graded and developed in the hills between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains.
Instead, Pepperdine will be able to build nearly 1.5 million square feet of new facilities on an undeveloped 72-acre section of the campus. The development will allow Pepperdine to increase its student population to nearly 7,000 by the end of the century. Enrollment now is about 3,200.
The decision by the commission, whose approval is necessary for all development projects in the state's coastal zone, was a major victory for the school, which has pursued its ambitious development plan for more than six years. And it was a sizable setback for community activists, who fear Pepperdine's expansion will transform Malibu into a booming college town.
During the five-hour hearing in Marina del Rey on Tuesday, coastal panel members also rejected several amendments to the plan that would have required the university to preserve forever hundreds of acres of undeveloped hillside property. The commission said it would accept the university's assurances that it would not develop the land and will not require Pepperdine to make the guarantees in writing. The development plan, however, does require Pepperdine to dedicate 150 acres of land as open space.
"Deciding not to place any restrictions on the other undeveloped areas of campus is even worse than approving the plan," said Sara Wan, a member of the Malibu Township Council. "Obviously, we're disappointed, but we're not surprised."
Township Council members said they would consider a lawsuit to block the plan. They contend that the Pepperdine expansion, which will require grading of 3 million cubic yards of dirt, violates the Coastal Act because the plan does not include adequate measures to offset the increase in traffic and damage to natural vegetation.
"My duty is to uphold the Coastal Act and hold developers responsible for abiding by it, and we're not doing that here," said Madelyn Glickfeld, a commissioner who voted against the plan. "I think that a narrow majority of the commission believes that Pepperdine doesn't fall under the Coastal Act. And I think we've left ourselves open to litigation."
University officials applauded the commission's decision, which they said was necessary if Pepperdine is to move into the top rank of the nation's private liberal arts colleges. They argued that the only way to scale down the size of the expansion was to drop several academic programs, an alternative they said was unacceptable.
"We are first and foremost an educational facility," said Andrew Benton, vice president of university affairs. "We only want to develop 72 acres out of 600 acres, and we don't believe that is unreasonable."
Pepperdine officials say that the overall impact will be offset by spreading the development and student population around campus and by making needed improvements on Pacific Coast Highway and connecting streets.
The university wants to build more student and faculty housing, a new business and management school and a student recreation center, and to expand the law school library and tennis facility. Most of the money for these projects, estimated at $45 million, has already been raised, according to school administrators.
However, the conservative, Christian school was unable to win over community leaders, who are still upset that officials at the 830-acre campus lobbied successfully to be removed from the boundaries of the proposed city of Malibu.
Nearly a dozen residents and activists testified that Pepperdine's development plan would contribute to traffic problems on Pacific Coast Highway and cause further harm to landslide-plagued areas next to the campus.
Coastal commission staff analysts objected to the proposed construction in the undeveloped areas of campus, saying that the extensive grading required would destroy natural vegetation. University officials argued, however, that the staff's revised plan of building new facilities in the developed area of campus would make the college too crowded.
In voting to reject the staff recommendations, several commissioners said the college should not be viewed as a private developer, instead noting the "cultural and educational benefits" the community would receive if Pepperdine expanded.