Twenty years ago, A. Jerrold Perenchio got the California Coastal Commission's go-ahead to lay down a jogging track, gazebos and ponds on a trash-filled lot he owned near the Malibu shore. But before the landscapers arrived, he says, his wife talked him into creating a pitch-and-putt golf course, which he claims commissioners informally approved. With an 8-foot-high rock wall surrounding the site, his change of plans went unnoticed.
Now that his pitch-and-putt is public knowledge, Perenchio, the head of the Spanish-language television network Univision, has asked the coastal panel to grandfather in the course. The agency's staff had agreed, but activists kicked up such a fuss that commissioners, who met this month, put off the matter until October.
Surely this ruckus isn't about whether the man built a putting green instead of a gazebo on his private property. It is -- and it isn't.
Surfers and environmentalists charge that Perenchio uses more chemicals to keep his course emerald green than if he'd stuck to his landscape plan. They say hazardous runoff from the 838 pounds of herbicides and fertilizers that gardeners spread last year trickles into the nearby Malibu Lagoon through a pipe he laid under the course.
The wall is also a sore point since it blocks the ocean view for drivers on Pacific Coast Highway. Although the commission agreed to Perenchio's plan for the wall in 1982, current guidelines wouldn't permit it.
These are the specific complaints. But like so many bloody skirmishes over new decks, tennis courts and manse expansions in Malibu, the fight is really over whether ordinary Californians will ever get to enjoy publicly owned beaches and coastal lands as the law entitles them to.
When Perenchio bought his 10 acres, it was zoned for "public-serving uses," meaning anything he built -- a hotel, store or a park -- had to be open to the public. The commission let him landscape and fence his land only until Malibu drafted its coastal protection plan, which state law requires of all beach cities and counties.
Malibu never drafted this plan, so state lawmakers ordered the commission to do it. The commission adopted that plan this year, but only after Malibu residents and officials pressured the agency to accept a number of unwise changes. One was to rezone Perenchio's site for homes only, meaning the golf course doesn't pass muster; but neither do the open-to-the-public uses.
California law guarantees that ordinary folks can boogie board in the waves, dig their toes into the sand and gaze at the sun setting over the water. But that means little if wealthy landowners can push the commission -- charged with protecting the public's interest -- into doing otherwise.