The California Coastal Commission has handed the Adamson Cos. a serious setback in its bid to develop a luxury hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu.
By a unanimous vote, the state panel last week refused to approve an interim sewer plan for the planned $65-million, 300-room hotel. Without the approval, the firm, one of Malibu's largest landowners, would be prevented from starting construction until a regional sewer system that Los Angeles County wants to build in Malibu is in place.
Adamson may reapply for approval after it conducts further studies, but that could take several months.
The decision Wednesday came a day after the coastal panel refused to allow the county to speed construction of the proposed $43-million sewer system. The commission approved the hotel plan in 1986 but said the sewer system had to be installed before the hotel could open.
The latest developments greatly increase the likelihood that the hotel's fate, and that of the sewer, will be left to Malibu's future City Council to help decide, once the community becomes a city.
"I think we have to realize there's a gorilla in the room, and that's the (future) City Council," Commissioner Gary Giacomini said. "Even if we approved (the company's) request, it could be undone later by the new City Council."
A three-judge panel in Los Angeles has scheduled a hearing Wednesday to decide whether Malibu's incorporation, approved by voters last month, can go forward, or whether the county can delay cityhood until next March.
Opponents of the Adamson plan argued that it would be too risky to approve a septic-tank system for the 27-acre site near Pepperdine University when not enough is known about the possible consequences. The site is next to an earthquake fault and is susceptible to landslides.
Commissioner Madelyn Glickfeld, a Malibu resident, said she would be astonished if the same county officials who call residential septic tanks in Malibu a health hazard approve septic tanks for the hotel complex, which would include a 60,000-square-foot convention facility, several restaurants and a separate office building.
"This is so many times greater than anything else that is on a septic system in Malibu as to be almost incalculable," Glickfeld said. The county has long cited the environmental damage caused by leaking septic tanks as the prime reason for insisting that the sewer system be built.
Adamson had announced last week that it will join forces with the firm that owns the Hotel Bel-Air to develop and manage the Malibu hotel. Its partner, the Sazale Corp. of Japan, owns several other luxury hotels in the United States and France, including the Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles.
Besides the interim sewer plan, the company must have the Coastal Commission approve its final grading plans before construction can begin. The commission is scheduled to consider the grading matter next month at its meeting in Eureka.
Adamson, which has already spent more than $5 million on the hotel project, had hoped, like the county with its sewer system, to start work before Malibu becomes a city.
The firm has done little to enhance its popularity among cityhood backers, who accused it of working behind the scenes to defeat cityhood in 1976. Last December, the company joined the county in a lawsuit to delay this year's cityhood vote.
More recently, with cityhood appearing to be inevitable, company officials have made gestures aimed at healing the rift.
Three weeks before last month's incorporation election, Sylvia R. A. Neville, the firm's managing general partner, gave a rare interview to a Malibu newspaper in which she declared that she was in favor of cityhood. Other company officials have stated that they look forward to working with the new city on the hotel.
"We haven't received an unfavorable response from any of the council members-elect with respect to the hotel, and I would say that's encouraging," said Barna Szabo, a political consultant for the company, after last week's Coastal Commission hearing.
Among those at the hearing who urged the commission to deny approval of the company's interim sewer plan was Sharon Adamson, whose late husband, Merritt, was managing general partner of the Adamson Cos. until his death in 1986.
Sharon Adamson is involved in a bitter legal battle with Neville and Rhoda-May Dallas, her former sisters-in-law, contending that she and her two adult children are owed one-third of the family's estimated $75-million fortune. She has accused Neville and Dallas of grossly mismanaging the company's assets.
In testimony before the Coastal Commission, Sharon Adamson said that the hotel plan was "poorly conceived" and that if she and her children succeed in obtaining the hotel site as part of their share of the company's assets, "our plan (for the site) will be completely different."
As proposed, the hotel would include 11 low-lying, Spanish-style villas nestled into the hillside, surrounded by extensive landscaping, including streams and fountains. There would be a free-standing restaurant at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu Canyon Road in addition to restaurants in the hotel.
Company officials say the villa design will be much less noticeable from the busy coastal highway, and its Spanish-style architecture will complement that of the nearby university.