SAN FRANCISCO — She may be the toast of the United Nations for her work on behalf of the environment, but some of singer Olivia Newton-John's Malibu neighbors are not impressed.
"A railroad job, that's what I'd call it," said Gretchen Buck, after the state Coastal Commission on Wednesday softened its criticism of alleged violations involving a home that the singer and her husband, Matt Lattanzi, are building in Malibu.
Irate residents had complained that tons of dirt and sand were illegally dumped on the beach during construction of a seawall for the 6,000-square-foot home in exclusive Paradise Cove.
Investigators for the state panel acknowledged Wednesday that the couple had violated the Coastal Act by carrying out construction without a permit, but found no fault with the methods used. However, the commission did not rule out the possibility of seeking civil penalties "later on," said Nancy Cave, the agency's chief enforcement officer. By law, the commission can seek penalties of up to $5,000 a day in cases where applicants knowingly violate the act.
Lattanzi, who attended the hearing but did not testify, said after the ruling: "I'm glad it's over and I know Olivia is. Neither of us would knowingly do anything to hurt the environment."
Newton-John was in New York, where she was honored at the United Nations on Monday for her work as a special ambassador for the environment.
The singer, who lives in Malibu with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, has long been an outspoken advocate for environmental causes. In 1987, she represented Save Our Coast, a Malibu-based environmental group, at a hearing before the Los Angeles County supervisors and testified against the county's efforts to impose a sewer system in Malibu.
The couple acquired their beach property in 1981. Last year, the Coastal Commission granted permission for extensive grading of the property in return for the couple's promise to shore up a bluff and restore vegetation once their planned solar-powered house, which Lattanzi said will resemble a sand castle, is finished.
Last June, the commission issued a permit allowing the seawall to be built on the condition that no sand or dirt be stockpiled on the beach and that the work be completed before the permit expired Nov. 1.
In approving an after-the-fact permit for the work Wednesday, the commission members faulted the couple for not requesting an extension. But they noted that, with the rainy season approaching, the couple probably did what was necessary to avoid erosion of a bluff at the site.
The ruling did not please everyone. "This is a project out of control," said William Litvak, an attorney for several neighbors who contend that grading has destabilized the bluff on their properties.
A lawyer for the couple disagreed. "Because we're dealing with a celebrity who also happens to be an environmentalist, the whole issue has been blown out of proportion," Elizabeth Watson said.