Commission gives emergency radio antenna mixed reception

The Planning Commission Monday declined to throw its full support behind city staffers negotiating with Caltrans over federal money for an emergency communication system. In the process, it may have cost the city its own locally based emergency radio network.

For two years, city officials have been planning to build an emergency communication system that would keep Malibu residents informed in the event of a disaster, such as a major earthquake, when roads and power lines have collapsed, and Malibu is cut off from the outside world.

Emergency Services Coordinator Hap Holmwood had been envisioning a low-frequency AM radio transmitter, based at City Hall, that residents could tune into to hear vital information. Holmwood had been pinning hopes on federal funding for the project, which includes a single 50-foot antenna to be located inside the water treatment plant at Point Dume Mobile Home Park.

Last year, $50,000 from the federal budget was set aside for such a project. While the money was originally intended for use by the city, political tides have changed, and recently Caltrans appears to have appropriated the money for its own emergency communication system that would also cover Malibu. Holmwood is meeting with Caltrans representatives Friday in a final attempt to persuade the agency to relinquish the $50,000.

Without time to obtain a conditional use permit for the project, and hoping to show Caltrans Friday that the city’s political leadership backs the plan for the radio transmitter, Holmwood asked the Planning Commission to recommend an amendment to the zoning code to permit emergency communication systems in all parts of the city without requiring a conditional use permit.

“I need the positive attitude of the commission tonight so I can tell the people at Caltrans that we’re serious about this and we’re ready to move and it’s not up to them to jeopardize what we’ve already established,” said Holmwood.

But the commissioners chose not to grant Holmwood’s request — and consequently not make a strong show of political unity to Caltrans — even though, had the commission given Holmwood what he wanted, the City Council could easily have declined any such recommended changes to the zoning code. The council is scheduled to hear Holmwood’s latest dealings with Caltrans at its next meeting, but that will occur after Holmwood has already met with the agency.

Based on a suggestion by Commissioner Jo Ruggles, the commission unanimously recommended instead that the code be changed to require a conditional use permit for all emergency communication systems in any part of the city. An impassioned Ruggles, apparently believing that the commission is all that stands between the status quo and a city filled with emergency radio antennas, argued forcefully against Holmwood’s request.

“I’m sorry, but I can not support this as a permitted use in all zones in the city without review and without public hearings … I will not sandbag the residents of this community,” said Ruggles, who was reminded by newly appointed Chair Andrew Stern that the commission would only be making a recommendation to amend the code, rather than actually enacting any change.

Holmwood, speaking directly to Ruggles, said, “We have to make a strong showing on Friday that the city of Malibu and its leadership wants this antenna and intends to have it, or we’re not going to get [the money.]”

Holmwood’s appeal seemed to make an impression on both commissioner Ed Lipnick and Chair Stern.

“I’m willing to accept the emergency director’s statement that this is a time-critical issue and accept it as is,” said Lipnick. “We’re essentially over a barrel here.”

But after assurances from Commissioners Ruggles and Ken Kearsley, who was named as the new vice chair earlier in the meeting, that the City Council would grant Holmwood a conditional use permit for the Point Dume radio antenna on an emergency basis, the commission unanimously adopted Ruggles’ suggestion.

In the end, though, the commission’s half measure of support for Holmwood — that he can seek a conditional use permit — may not sufficiently convince Caltrans that the city’s political leaders back the project to make it worth relinquishing the $50,000.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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