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Malibu Resort Plan Revived, as Is Opposition

October 29, 1999|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What goes around comes around when you're talking about a village of yurts.

That's what angry Malibu residents are discovering as a developer revives a long-dormant plan to fill their canyon with a "spiritual retreat," building 95 circular yurt tents.

The Mongolian-style structures would be accompanied by sprawling meeting and fitness facilities, swimming pools, tennis courts and a 180-car parking lot.

The construction plan is identical to one proposed nearly 10 years ago but never built at a 93-acre site along a rustic creek deep within Escondido Canyon

And the reaction of nearby homeowners now is identical to their reaction back then.

Opponents contend that the project has twice been approved for construction because of identical bureaucratic miscues--one made in 1994 and the other just three months ago--by low-level Los Angeles County planning administrators.

"It takes a different kind of person to live up here," said canyon resident Candace Brown, who is leading the fight to block the project. "And the kind of people who live here will fight to protect the mountains."

Residents were unable to block the project in the early 1990s, however. With little notice, county planners issued a routine permit for the resort after deciding that the project needed no special environmental review because it had already received state Coastal Commission approval.

In July, county planners approved activation of the long-lapsed construction permit for the same reason: because the Coastal Commission again had given it a thumbs-up.

Both Planning Department decisions have angered the county supervisors who have represented the unincorporated canyon two miles north of the ocean.

After the 1994 approval, then-Supervisor Ed Edelman described himself as "surprised and disappointed"

Furious, current Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is vowing now to overturn the permit's July 15 renewal.

"We're not nipping it in the bud, we're crushing it in the bud," he said. "This is going to all be reversed. We're going to start from scratch, like it should be."

The controversy has surprised the developer hoping to build the canyon resort. Richard Weintraub purchased the land--and the approved building plot plan that went along with it--for $1.45 million in September.

Weintraub plans to spend up to $7 million more to turn the tree-shaded canyon into "a spiritual place" that is scheduled to open in 2001.

Organic gardens would be scattered among the tent cabins, which themselves would be nestled among oaks, sycamores and redwoods that shade the year-round Escondido Creek .

"It will be a place for people to depressurize, a place for people from the city to come," Weintraub said of the setting he plans to call Latigo Ranch Retreat.

It was former landowner Irwin "Red" Lachman who conceived the idea of a canyon camp for 400 people, housed in 95 yurt-like tent cabins. They were described as circular structures built of fabric-covered wood with solid floors, containing kitchens, bathrooms and fireplaces.

A brochure described the place as a future New Age retreat--an outdoor study hall for reading the great books and a research lab for environmental education.

Because it was designated as a camp and Lachman promised to make it available five days a year to needy inner-city youngsters, the Coastal Commission routinely approved the project in 1992.

Two years later, county planners also approved it, concluding that it must be environmentally sound if the Coastal Commission had endorsed it.

That's when Edelman weighed in, bemoaning the fact that planners hadn't required a conditional use permit for the project--something that would have triggered full public hearings and in-depth reports on environmental, safety and traffic issues. After the permit was issued, there was nothing Edelman could do to stop it.

But reported financing problems prevented Lachman from ever building his campground.

He did spend $17,625 on preliminary work for a septic system at the site and on brush clearance in 1995. And that proved important when he went back to the Coastal Commission two years later to activate his development permit.

Commission staff members decided that the septic tank and brush-clearance work constituted the commencement of construction, which meant the Coastal Commission development permit was still valid.

This summer, just before he sold the land, Lachman showed county planners a letter from the state agency asserting that "development has commenced" on the property. That was good enough for the county, whose development permit normally would have expired from nonuse after two years.

Rudy Lackner, head of the county planning department's land use regulation division, said the question of whether the development permit was actually used by Lachman could be debated.

"Did work begin within two years of the date of approval of the plans? That is the question," said Lackner.

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