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Stakes High as Malibu Debates Land-Use Plan

Development: City must take over decisions from state coastal panel. Set of sweeping rules draws fire.

September 13, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pitting property rights against coastal protection, Malibu residents bitterly debated a proposed plan Thursday that would govern development in the exclusive 27-mile-long coastal community.

Discussions before the state Coastal Commission continued late into the night, as environmentalists said the rules would help protect Malibu's semirural character and some homeowners complained that even the most incremental home improvements would be unfairly forbidden.

The 14-member commission is expected to vote today, as its meeting near Los Angeles International Airport continues, and the decision could affect everything from home improvements to a massive commercial project proposed for the Malibu Civic Center.

Among the first of dozens to speak at Thursday's hearing was singer Don Henley, who owns a home, farmland and open space in the city. He urged the commission to approve the plan, saying it will help preserve land that he has grown to love in his 27 years there.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 507 words Type of Material: Correction
Don Henley--A photo caption in the California section Friday stated that singer Don Henley supports a development plan by Malibu. Henley actually spoke at a California Coastal Commission hearing in favor of a plan designed to sharply limit growth in sensitive habitat areas.

"I love Malibu, and I don't want to see it destroyed for the personal profit of other people," he said.

Malibu resident Wade Major said the plan would leave quite a different legacy, not unlike that of the Nazis: "the erosion of civil liberties, the imperious edicts and the state-sponsored propaganda that preached the value of subordinating individual wants to the broader community values."

Many other local residents said they were concerned that the plan might stunt property values and stop their ability to make the smallest improvements--from painting their homes to planting rose bushes and other nonnative plants to remodeling--without first being forced into costly biological studies.

All coastal cities were long ago supposed to adopt such plans, which seek to balance development and land use in sensitive environments. But Malibu, along with a handful of other cities, never got around to creating such a plan, leaving the matters in the hands of the Coastal Commission.

The statewide panel, charged with protecting the entire 1,100-mile coast, often found itself locked in daylong sessions, bogged down in the minutiae of deck expansions, bathroom remodels and garage additions, often for some of the state's wealthiest residents.

"For many years, the main business of the commission that takes up the most time on their agenda has been local land-use decisions in the city of Malibu," said Mary Nichols, Gov. Gray Davis' secretary of resources. "It was a failure on the part of the city of Malibu to get their act together."

About two years ago, politicians in Sacramento got sick of being relentlessly lobbied about local matters, most memorably over a sea wall for entertainment mogul David Geffen. The Legislature passed a bill requiring the Coastal Commission to take responsibility for drafting the plan away from Malibu officials and to have the state agency complete the task itself by Sept. 15, 2002--this Sunday.

Malibu city officials would then reassume responsibility for local planning matters, but under the vastly stricter guidelines being drawn by the state panel.

Eight hours into Thursday's meeting, the stakes of the discussion were clear as the commission was still listening to some of the 170 people who signed up to testify.

"This Local Coastal Program is your legacy and your gift, to not only Malibu residents but to all the state's residents and visitors," Mark Massara, coastal programs director with the Sierra Club, told the coastal commissioners.

But residents expressed a host of concerns, chief among them that the plan designates nearly half of the city's 12,679 acres as "environmentally sensitive habitat areas." These lands, mostly covered in sage and chaparral, and 100-foot buffers around them, would be protected from most new development. Some privately owned parcels are wholly covered in these habitats, so to avoid unconstitutionally taking property, the plan would limit development to 10,000 square feet or a quarter of the lot, whichever is smaller.

Mayor Jeff Jennings said that because that limitation includes grading, it is virtually a de facto development ban.

"It makes it essentially impossible to develop a path for a home, much less a guest house or a tennis court," he said.

Many residents called the limitations arbitrary, and protested that they may be unfairly imposed on properties that don't contain any sensitive habitats.

"This plan slaps on every property that is labeled [as sensitive] on that map--extreme restrictions until the property owner comes down at some point in the future and tries to prove otherwise," said Stanley Lamport, a lawyer with the Land Use Preservation Fund. "It does not comport with the Coastal Act, it exceeds the Coastal Commission's authority and it's not wise policy."

Commission staff members noted earlier that when public open space and steep land that can't be built on are removed from the calculation, only 14% of private property will be designated sensitive habitat.

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