Two Malibu groups have filed suit against the California Coastal Commission in a bid to block Pepperdine University's plans to double its student enrollment and nearly triple the size of its seaside campus.
Accusing the commission of "hideously violating" its charter to protect the coastline from unwarranted development, a lawyer for the Malibu Township Council and the Malibu Road Property Owners Assn. last week asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to set aside the panel's approval of Pepperdine's plans.
"The commission gave the university essentially everything it wanted without due regard for the environmental consequences, and we're confident we can demonstrate that in a court of law," said attorney Philip Seymour.
In approving Pepperdine's long-range development plan by a 7-5 vote, the panel in September rejected its own staff recommendation that the university limit all new construction to 225 acres that it has already graded and developed in the hills between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains.
Instead, Pepperdine was given the go-ahead to build nearly 1.5 million square feet of new facilities on an undeveloped 72-acre section of the campus. The development would allow the university to increase its enrollment to nearly 7,000 by the end of the century. Pepperdine has about 3,200 students.
The approval was a major victory for the university, which has been pursuing the expansion plan for six years. But it angered many Malibu residents, who fear that Pepperdine's plans threaten to transform the seaside community into a booming college town.
Residents were especially upset that the coastal panel rejected several amendments to the plan that would have required the university to preserve forever hundreds of acres of undeveloped hillside property.
Instead, the panel accepted the university's assurances that it would not develop the land, without requiring Pepperdine to make a guarantee in writing.
The suit contends that the expansion, which will require grading of up to 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.
It also claims that the panel erred in approving a plan based on a 1984 environmental impact report that Seymour called "feeble at best . . . and unquestionably outdated and inadequate."
"The plan is too big, it's in the wrong place, and by approving it the Coastal Commission ignored the very environmental protection standards it is entrusted with protecting," said Seymour, a lawyer with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Center, based in Santa Barbara, which filed the suit on behalf of the Malibu groups.
Larry Wan, president of the 2,000-member Malibu Township Council, said the group decided to challenge the decision in court "not only for what it threatens to do to Malibu, but because we think it sets a dangerous precedent for the entire coastline."
The other group involved in the suit consists of about 250 Malibu Road property owners whose homes are between the campus and the ocean. They have frequently complained that water runoff from the campus has raised the water table beneath their properties, threatening to weaken the foundations of houses and posing a landslide danger.
"We regard what the Coastal Commission did as a grave error," said Robert Patten, who heads the Malibu Road group. "We think we deserve the protection that the Coastal Act affords."
A spokesman for Pepperdine said that university officials had not yet seen the lawsuit and would have no comment.
The university wants to build more student and faculty housing, a new business and management school and a student recreation center, as well as expand the law school library and tennis facility. Officials say that most of the money for the projects, estimated at $45 million, has been raised.
Pepperdine officials have said that the overall impact of the expansion would be offset by spreading the development and student population around campus and by making needed improvements on Pacific Coast Highway and connecting streets.
At the September hearing, Coastal Commission staff analysts objected to the proposed construction in the undeveloped areas of campus, saying that extensive grading would destroy natural vegetation. However, 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" that the community would receive if Pepperdine expands.