Coastal Commission tackles feuding beach neighbors, drivebys and Joe Edmiston’s appetites

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An Opinion

An ornate ballroom of the Queen Mary, sitting majestically alongside a Long Beach pier, was a fitting venue last week for the Coastal Commission’s illustration of its interpretation of the doctrine of noblesse oblige.

The agenda was filled with Malibu. The first early morning battle was between the Ramirez Canyon neighbors and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a fiefdom ruled by Joe Edmiston, who wants to turn the former Streisand Center, a multi-building complex at the end of very rural and narrow Ramirez Canyon Road, into a venue for weddings and bar mitzvahs, to raise bucks for his many purposes. Edmiston — who looks like a large cuddly bearded panda bear, which disguises his voracious polar bear appetites — gobbles up land in the name of the public good, in this case to the accompanying hosannas of a very compliant Coastal Commission, seemingly content to play 12 little happy dwarfs to Edmiston’s Snow White.

Technically, the Coastal Commission holds its meetings in public, takes input and makes decisions in the light of day for all the world to see. Sometimes it actually works that way and there is a real discussion, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case here. This thing was so wired it was almost embarrassing to be in the same room with that group trying so hard to pretend that somehow this was a public process.

What Edmiston wanted, and the commission was obviously pleased to grant, was a coastal bill giving him virtual carte blanche to crank out as much money as he can from the former Streisand Center by holding as many 200-person events as time, space and the catering market would allow. It wasn’t just the guests, it was also caterers, the waiters and a variety of other support people, all for the purpose of raising enough money to support this white elephant that Edmiston had originally accepted from Streisand for a highly acclaimed and never-to-happen think tank for environmental scholars from all over the world. Once the upkeep bills began to roll in and the realization hit that the conservancy had been saddled with a very large turkey, Edmiston sought to convert it to a catering hall. Although initially rebuffed by coastal staff, he seemed able to satisfy their very finicky appetite not by decreasing the size of his project, as one might expect, but by turning it into a public park and then substantially increasing the size of the project. Accessible, of course, only by one very narrow, windy, private road.

Edmiston got everything he wanted, 12 to 0. Not only did the citizens of Malibu get royally hosed — they now have a catering hall in a location that is so profoundly inappropriate for its intended use that one could question the sanity of this decision. They also got a series of very sanctimonious lectures from several commissioners who went to great lengths to point out that rich white folk are not going to be able to keep the mountains to themselves anymore, and it was our own damn fault for never passing a Local Coastal Plan and thereby taking this matter out of their greedy, greeny little hands. So, tough. And on that last point I must admit they’re probably right.

But Edmiston was just the warm up on the fight card compared to the main event. That came much later in the afternoon, long after I left the scene, so what I’m relating is second hand.

This was a battle of Olympian proportions between Eli Broad, one of L.A.’s most prominent, and from what I’ve heard, not terribly beloved billionaires, and Nancy Daly Riordan, the wife of L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and the ex-wife of Daly (of Daly/Semel of Warner Brothers). It seems that Broad and Riordan each own some lots on Carbon beach, and they want to tear down the old houses and build three new larger houses. In keeping with a more recent Malibu beachlot tradition that seems to say the less a beach house will be used, the larger the house has to be, they of course want to build their houses practically lot line to lot line.

Enter the Coastal Commission, which says, we don’t want a solid line of houses blocking the public viewshed, so you have to give us a 20-foot-wide view corridor (on each of three lots) so people can see the ocean as they drive by. Now, one might well wonder why the Coastal Commission thinks a 20-foot view between houses glimpsed by someone traveling 50 mph is so important. Consider that it takes a little less then one-third of a second to drive by the opening.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said for not having wall-to-wall houses along the beach, and thereby came the solution. Broad/Riordan suggested that instead of modifying their own proposed houses, they would instead buy a lot down the beach, and donate it as open space for the public to enjoy. That sounded fine to the commissioners, and the deal was soon consummated. It only needed the official imprimatur of a majority of the Coastal Commission to make it a done deal. So, in near record time, it was on the agenda.

Now, down the beach where the new public beach was to go, and on a rather bad corner of the highway, almost all would agree, the locals, as you might expect, were less then overjoyed. They viewed this less as an act of public altruism by Broad/Riordan and more as slipping the not-so-nice stuff over onto your neighbor’s lot. They determined to fight back. So they gathered — Freddie Fields, Lou Adler, Peg Yorkin and Ginny Mancini, and a number of their equally influential neighbors — and what they found was that this thing was greased, that tiny little Sacramento fingers were all over it, and it sailed through 12-zip. They, of course, immediately reached for their lawyers, and the Coastal Commission, perhaps in acknowlegement of the hard political realities, said if the beach dedication failed because some court blocks it, Broad/Riordan could instead pay $1 million into a fund for use in obtaining some other beach access, which means that’s probably the way it’s ultimately going to go.

So if you happen to be in the neighborhood someday, I highly recommend the Coastal Commission meetings for a really cheap day’s entertainment, kind of like environmental Kabuki theater.