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Malibu to Weigh In on 'Crown Jewels'

A complicated ballot item could determine how remaining prime parcels are developed.

November 03, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Malibu, a coastal enclave that has elevated NIMBYism to an art form, is waging a pitched battle over a road map for development.

Generating the furor is Measure M, a complex agreement appearing on Tuesday's ballot that could decide how the city's remaining "crown jewel" parcels are developed.

The sometimes rancorous debate over the development pact -- a substantial revision of an earlier agreement for which an environmental review was completed -- has pitted the mayor, the City Council and the Little League president, who favor the measure, against most of the city's planning commissioners, who oppose it. The measure has split the environmental community and divided neighborhoods.

Proponents say the agreement would result in less development than allowed under current rules. Saying the opposite is true, opponents fret about the effects on water quality and already crowded Pacific Coast Highway.

One aspect of the agreement that has generated heated debate is the city's plan to explore building an underground wastewater treatment facility on a prime parcel in Malibu's historic core. In a city that was incorporated in 1991 because residents fiercely opposed Los Angeles County's proposal to install sewers, that is a hot-button issue.

For its nearly 12,600 residents, "this is a struggle about defining what the future of Malibu will look like," said Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network.

The development pact was reached after years of public hearings and negotiations between the city and Malibu Bay Co., the city's largest landholder and developer, with properties in the civic center, Point Dume and western Malibu. The company's owners are billionaire A. Jerrold Perenchio and his family. Perenchio is a Malibu resident and controlling shareholder of Univision, the Spanish-language television network.

An "impartial analysis" by Malibu City Atty. Christi Hogin makes Measure M sound straightforward enough.

"The agreement affects 12 properties totaling 110 acres," the analysis states. "The agreement allows development density that differs from that allowed under the current rules."

It gets trickier, however: "The total amount of new commercial development permitted under the agreement depends on whether the city purchases 20.02 acres in the civic center."

Indeed, the deal's key provision would give Malibu three years to raise $25 million to buy from Perenchio the so-called Chili Cook-Off Site, a flat 20-acre plot on Pacific Coast Highway where the city holds an annual Labor Day feeding fest. Malibu Bay, in exchange, would be allowed to develop certain other parcels throughout the city and would help Malibu build parks and ball fields.

If, however, the city could not raise the funds, Malibu Bay would have the right to develop the Chili property under the original plan, which would allow 155,000 square feet of new commercial space in addition to the 30,000 that is there now. The city's planning commissioners objected to that plan as allowing more development than Malibu could support.

Opponents say the conditions and alternatives make Measure M too iffy a proposition.

"The Time Warner-AOL merger document was less complex than this," said Richard Carrigan, one of the planning commissioners who oppose the proposal. "It's murky, complex, complicated, and the fine print tells it all.

Even proponents admit to being bewildered.

"I've talked to so many people on this, and everybody is confused," said Sheila Battistello, a resident of the Point Dume area. "The thing is kind of convoluted -- it's a mess."

Despite those reservations, Battistello said she would probably vote yes because she thinks the agreement would reduce development and because she would like the city to address what residents call "the Malibu smell" -- the strong odors from leaky septic systems that permeate parts of the city.

Malibu's surfing mayor, Ken Kearsley, said the best hope for funds to buy the Chili site would be grants from state bond money earmarked for cleaning up polluted waterways. The Regional Water Quality Control Board and other agencies have long pressured Malibu to clean up Malibu Creek and Lagoon and Surfrider Beach, the most polluted beach on Santa Monica Bay.

An underground wastewater treatment plant would help solve the pollution problem, Kearsley said. To cover the costs of building and maintaining the facility and an above-ground park, nearby commercial developments, including Perenchio's, would be assessed as part of a special district, Kearsley said.

Standing one recent morning at the Chili site, he touted the benefits of so-called evapotranspiration. The method uses water (treated to levels that allow safe human contact) for irrigation; the moisture is then transferred from soil and plants to the atmosphere.

Ozzie Silna, a Measure M opponent, said he agrees that Malibu needs to address water pollution. But he doubts that evapotranspiration could succeed "in the middle of existing flood plains and wetlands with a high water table."

Silna lives just outside the Malibu city limits and will not be able to vote on the issue.

Nonetheless, he is leading the charge against Measure M. The best way to hold down development, he said, would be to force Malibu Bay to seek rights to develop each property individually.

That would apparently suit Malibu Bay fine.

"Should Malibu voters decide that a long-term development agreement is not in their best interests," the notoriously tight-lipped firm said in a statement, "Malibu Bay Co. will respect their judgment and will deal with its properties on a parcel-by-parcel basis."

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