Tooling along Pacific Coast Highway in his GMC pickup, Skylar Peak scans the break at Surfrider Beach. Bella, his golden retriever-Labrador, is leashed in the truck bed, her mohawk shaded by a red, white and blue surfboard bearing the message VOTE PEAK.
As he pulls into the beach parking lot, Peak shouts "Waddup?" and waves a shaka sign at some surfer pals. In a few hours, the Malibu native will paddle out. But at the moment, he has more on his mind than nose-riding.
In April, this celluloid ideal of a waterman became the youngest person ever elected to Malibu's City Council. His supporters are looking to Peak, who turned 28 this month, to help preserve what's left of their community's rural flavor. He freely voices opinions such as: "I'm not that stoked about development."
With the prospect of more than 1 million square feet of construction looming and with the sewer-versus-septic battle continuing to rage, Malibu stands at an environmental and cultural crossroads. Some residents view development as vital to the city's economic health. Others fret that their laid-back beach town is turning into Rodeo Drive west, with posh boutiques supplanting local shops that can't afford rising rents.
Big-money projects are popping up all over town. Software mogul Larry Ellison is building two restaurants near the pier. A Whole Foods is coming to the Civic Center. A developer has proposed a 146-room luxury hotel on 28 vacant acres at Malibu Canyon Road and PCH.
Although many locals welcome Peak's youthful exuberance, longtime observers say he is up against an entrenched leadership that has long been too cozy with developers. Some opponents and even friends wonder whether he's prepared for the rigors of city governance.
"He'll find out very quickly with this group that's in there … it's join us or go out by yourself," said Jefferson "Zuma Jay" Wagner, another surfer who won a council seat on a similar slow-growth pledge but did not seek reelection.
Flashing a toothy grin under sun-tipped strawberry-blond hair, Peak swaggers into Malibu Kitchen for a late-morning coffee. Emerging in his faded black T-shirt and green sweat pants, he gives a surfer's stink eye to the Lanvin and Missoni boutiques across the Malibu Village shopping center on Cross Creek Road.
"They don't belong here," he says.
A third-generation resident, Peak hungers for the cowboy charm and what he calls the magic of the Malibu his grandparents knew, where people rode horses at surf's edge and open space ran as far as the eye could see.
He grew up carving waves and cycling the chaparral-covered hillsides of Malibu. He attended the local public schools and graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu.
"I didn't want to go," he said. "I wanted to surf."
But his father, Dusty Peak, an electrician, surfer and water quality activist, insisted.
As was his dad, Skylar is an affable fixture in town. At Malibu Country Mart, Kate Pritchett, a lifelong friend, hugs him. At Malibu Seafood, Bonnie Decker, whose family homesteaded in Malibu in the 1860s, puts Peak's salmon lunch order on his tab.
During one of Malibu's wildfires, Peak doused embers with John Cusack. Mike D of the Beastie Boys is "like family." Mel Gibson's son Milo is a buddy and co-worker at Peak Power Electric, the electrical contracting company Peak took over after his father died.
Peak also co-owns Sicky Dicky Productions, a live-music promoter, and works part time as a lifeguard at Zuma Beach. He has taught scores of children and many a celebrity how to surf. Last summer, he tutored Gerard Butler for his surfer role in the upcoming film "Of Men and Mavericks."
He made national headlines in 2008 as one of two watermen tried on misdemeanor battery charges after mixing it up with a paparazzo who tried to photograph actor Matthew McConaughey near Point Dume, Peak's home surf break.
The case ended in a hung jury, and Peak remains unrepentant. "I'll always fight for the right to privacy," he says.
Since then, Peak has honed his image, serving on the board of the Malibu Boys and Girls Club and as a local parks commissioner. He said he would love to see wealthy Malibuites buy up remaining developable land and create small parks or open space.
He expresses dismay that the canyons where he and friends used to roam are now dotted with mega-mansions, and that roads that once went on for miles are gated.
The old-Malibu way of life was associated with now-departed businesses, like Hows Market at the western end of town, where, locals recall, a child who forgot his money could buy a doughnut on credit and clerks asked regulars: "How's your horse?"
The 17-acre Trancas Country Market that long housed Hows is now owned by aWal-Martheiress and her husband. It is undergoing renovation and expansion, with buildings made to look like barns.
Sewers and development pressures, Peak fears, could hasten the demise of the Malibu he cherishes.