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Sparks Fly Over Fire Rebuilding : Malibu: Neighbors fear that exemptions from construction rules granted to victims of 1993 blaze will result in bigger homes, blocked views and safety hazards.


Some Malibu residents are wondering what happens when a new neighborhood rises literally on the ashes of the old.

In the case of the city's La Costa section, where a 1993 fire destroyed 78 homes, the rebuilding has led some neighbors to think unneighborly thoughts about one another.

About 60 homeowners are rebuilding houses there. Many vow to erect bigger and better dwellings on the fire-ravaged land. But not all neighbors are thrilled with the reconstruction, which they say will hinder future firefighting efforts and spoil spectacular views from the mountains to the ocean.

The Malibu City Council this week decided to maintain an ordinance that exempts La Costa property owners from certain local building rules regarding the size and construction of new homes.

The La Costa neighborhood, which includes expensive homes dating from the 1920s, is roughly bounded on the east by Las Flores Canyon Road, on the south by Pacific Coast Highway, on the west by Villa Costera and on the north by Rambla Pacifico. The area was one of those hardest hit by the Old Topanga fire of 1993.

The ordinance, passed in September, was designed to expedite rebuilding for people who had lost their homes in the blaze. Among other things, the law allows property owners who want to build bigger homes to bypass size restrictions as well as some routine but time-consuming bureaucratic procedures, such as a city review of architectural plans.

The exemptions outraged lawyer Glenn Cairns, one of the few La Costa residents whose home escaped serious damage in the 1993 blaze. Cairns says allowing bigger homes in an area vulnerable to brush fires reinforces an image of Malibu residents as irresponsible and heedless of natural disasters. The scope of construction may further frustrate firefighters already hobbled by narrow roads and steep inclines, he said.

"How can Malibu ever ask for [federal disaster] money when they're allowing such insanity?" Cairns said. "This is another catastrophe waiting to happen."

What especially rankled Cairns was a provision in the ordinance exempting basements and garages of new homes from a 3,400-square-foot city limit. He sees the exemption as a loophole that will allow people to build new houses twice the original size.

But Joanne Gary, a teacher who lost her home in the fire, says Cairns is just worried about protecting the view from his residence. She says she plans to start rebuilding her house this summer, including a 900-square-foot addition. She accuses Cairns of trying to intimidate her and other neighbors who are rebuilding by complaining about the exemptions.

"This is my house and my only investment," Gary said. "I have every right, if I follow the codes, to build the home I want."

Cairns has vowed to continue fighting the exemptions. But city officials hope the issue is settled and that neighbors can continue rebuilding La Costa.

"Neither side has a lock on what's right," said Malibu City Manager David Carmany. "The people who are rebuilding have been through the wringer. They've lost homes and made insurance settlements . . . then contacted architects and contractors. . . . They are at the end of their emotional rope.

"But as the neighborhood gets rebuilt, some people are seeing a changed neighborhood, with new homes, different homes," he added. "And change is difficult, too."

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