A Malibu development company has cleared a key hurdle before the California Coastal Commission in its quest to build a luxury hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
By an 8-4 vote, the state panel, meeting in Marina del Rey, last week approved a grading and site preparation plan by the Adamson Cos. for a 27-acre site near Pepperdine University, where the firm wants to build the $65-million, 300-room hotel.
The outcome means that the project's future may be determined next month when the coastal panel meets in San Diego to decide whether to allow Los Angeles County to go ahead with a controversial $43-million sewer system for Malibu.
In approving the hotel in concept five years ago, the commission stipulated that the sewer system must be in place before the hotel is allowed to operate.
Widespread opposition to the sewer system contributed to overwhelming voter approval last June for Malibu's becoming a city. But the county has delayed cityhood until at least next March in a bid to start work on the sewer before a new Malibu government has the chance to block it. The coastal panel's decision, therefore, figures to be critical to the county's plans and to the hotel.
An Adamson spokesman said that if the county is not allowed to speed construction of the sewer, the company will seek permission at next month's meeting to build its own waste disposal system at the hotel site.
"One of the two (systems) has to be approved in order for us to accomplish our objective," said Barna Szabo, the spokesman. "Now that this one (the grading plan approval) is behind us, we're very hopeful."
Although several of Malibu's future leaders had expressed misgivings about the hotel's being approved before cityhood occurs, opposition to the company's plans has dissipated in recent weeks.
An observer who is intimately familiar with the details of the project, but spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the company appears to have convinced several of Malibu's future leaders that the nearly $2 million in annual tax revenue the hotel is estimated to generate would be too much to lose.
"I think people are beginning to see the dollar signs," the observer said. "You're talking about one-third or more of the projected ($5 million) initial city budget."
Slow-growth activists, several of whom had previously expressed doubts about the project before the Coastal Commission, were noticeably absent from Wednesday's hearing.
The only member of the public to testify against the grading plan was Leslie Adamson London, the daughter of the late Merritt Adamson. She and her mother, Sharon Adamson, and brother, Grant Adamson, are involved in a legal battle for control of an estimated $80-million family fortune that includes the company.
Merritt Adamson died in 1986, leaving his sisters, Sylvia R.A. Neville and Rhoda-May Dallas, as the firm's sole general partners.
With Neville seated a few steps away, London told the commissioners that the proposed hotel was "inappropriate to Malibu" and she expressed concern that if built, the hotel may lose money.
As proposed, the hotel would include 11 low-lying, Spanish-style villas nestled into a hillside above Pacific Coast Highway, a 60,000-square-foot convention center, several restaurants and a separate office building.
In August, the coastal panel had delayed approval of the company's request to grade 247,000 cubic yards of dirt from the hilly site above Malibu's main commercial area, after Commissioner Madelyn Glickfeld, who pushed for the delay, expressed hostility to the grading plan.
Glickfeld, who lives in Malibu, was among those opposed to the grading on Wednesday, saying that it would "leave not a shred of natural open space on the property."
However, other commissioners said they were satisfied with a requirement that the firm revegetate the site with at least 1,400 trees, and provide an easement that would prevent more structures from being built on parts of the hillside not used for the hotel.
"This thing (the grading issue) has been wrung out, wrung up and wrung every other way," said Commissioner Donald McInnis of Fallbrook. "I think it's time we approved it."