Careful. You can't walk in Malibu without stepping in it. The messy battle over Malibu's building moratorium has spilled out of council chambers and out into the community.
Turn on public access TV last week, and voila! There was Mayor Walt Keller posing in front of an American flag, complaining to viewers about a council-approved workshop on a program advanced by his rival, Councilman Larry Wan. Keller asked viewers to attend the Monday workshop so that it was not "dominated by the building industry," as in the past. Open the local paper, and there's a two-page letter from Councilwoman Carolyn Van Horn blasting Wan for working with "architects and developers' interests."
These were among the latest salvos in the feud between Keller and Wan that has paralyzed the council for weeks. Keller favors a strict moratorium and is opposed to a plan proposed by Wan to phase in exemptions for single-family homes.
Keller and his ally, Van Horn, were losing the battle to block Wan's program until this week, when their forays into the media galvanized Malibu's nigh-comatose slow-growth activists. "The call went out like Paul Revere riding through town," said Patt Healy, who last week organized the Malibu Coalition for Slow Growth.
Suddenly the activists threw themselves into the fray, making hundreds of phone calls these past few days and stuffing mailboxes with flyers warning residents of impending development doom. They turned out in droves to Monday's meeting of the council, catching developers off guard and leading the council to postpone--yet again--action on Wan's controversial plan to eventually exempt hundreds of homes from the city's moratorium. On Tuesday, the council voted instead to hold even more meetings about the plan. The council also passed measures to exempt 22 homes and up to 77 remodel and addition projects from the building ban. Keller surprised observers by supporting these measures, a mere peck at unclogging the construction pipeline.
But his vote did little to appease proponents of Wan's program, who note that it will take at least another month of hearings before possible passage. Supporters of the plan charge the mayor with stacking the deck, noting that he had shuffled the cards of Monday speakers so that slow growth activists spoke before supporters of Wan's plan. Keller said in an interview that he had arranged the order only because he wanted people who had not previously addressed the council to have first crack at the mike.
Wan's supporters said Wan was a victim of politics. "This is just all of Walt's supporters orchestrating a campaign of hate," said Sarah Wan, a longtime activist and Wan's wife. Councilwoman Missy Zeitsoff said she was infuriated by Keller's television appearance and Van Horn's letter in the newspaper. "This is misinformation deliberately orchestrated for political purposes," Zeitsoff said. "It's pulling this community apart."
Monday's meeting was supposed to be the final workshop before the council was expected to pass Wan's program on Tuesday. But an outline that staff had drawn up in a vain effort to focus discussion was forgotten as nearly 80 speakers took to the microphone. Most of them charged the council with selling out to developers and many of them attacked Wan personally. "Bear with things that come from the heart and not slick technique and speaking," said Remy O'Neill, a movie actress. "We shouldn't have this program shoved down our throats."
It was a scene that reminded many observers of the glorious days when Malibu activists fought the county for cityhood, a comparison that was not lost on some of the speakers. In what is the ultimate Malibu insult, several activists went so far as to compare council members to county officials. "We didn't trade in the county supervisors for the city supervisors," said Bill Eger. "Get your act together."
Developers, homeowners and real estate agents huddled in hallways, stunned and angry. In the past, they have monopolized the microphone, sometimes in tears, to complain about the hardships the moratorium put them under. Their highly effective campaign had met its match.
Brady Westwater, organizer of a group of homeowners seeking exemptions from the moratorium, glumly noted that his organization has banked thousands of dollars and is ready to sue if the city does not quickly adopt Wan's program.
The mayor has similar ideas. Keller said he remains determined to fight Wan's program if it continues, in his view, to leave Malibu with insufficient control over development. Now that he has done battle in the council chambers and taken his case to the community via the airwaves, Keller said, there is one last resort. For the good of the city, he said, he might have to sue it. "I hope I never have to do it, but I would be willing to go to court," he said.