Architect Writes Book on Navigating Malibu Zoning Code

Malibu architect Lester Tobias, above, has written a new book called “Building in the ‘Bu: Navigating the Malibu Zoning Code.” Tobias says the book is meant to serve as a guide for newcomers to Malibu who are hoping to get a home built through navigating what can be a complex building process.

In his 20-plus years as an architect in Malibu, Lester Tobias has seen his share of architectural triumph and disaster. In his new book, “Building in the ‘Bu: Navigating the Malibu Zoning Code,” he aims to codify his hard-won knowledge of the city’s often-labyrinthine Planning Department regulations–in a format that is, as he says, “for the average layman who comes to Malibu and cannot believe what it takes to get a home built.”

Malibu, of course, is famous for its development-leery ambiance. The city joins other regulatory agencies like the California Coastal Commission to present an eager new homebuilder a plethora of codes whose interpretations frequently change, leaving the owner to wonder if his property will ever be developed or remodeled.

“I wrote the book just because it had to be written,” Tobias said. “I have heard so much frustration in people just trying to put an extra bathroom in their house.”

The book covers subjects such as environmentally sensitive habitat areas (ESHAs) to the “50 percent” rule, the definition of which he says neither the code nor the city make clear. The book contains graphs and diagrams that chart a prospective homeowner’s path, depending on the permitting scenario, from the beginning of the process to obtaining a building permit.

Tobias has long experience in Malibu, establishing his company, Tobias Architecture, 30 years ago. He also serves on the city’s Environmental Review Board and its Green Building Committee.

He says that problems began when writing Coastal Commission design guidelines for Malibu and Santa Monica back in 1986. When the county moved from unincorporated to incorporated, an “interim” zoning ordinance was written, and then written again when Malibu became a city.

“We could never write one that got approved, so we kept with the interim ordinance,” Tobias said. “It leads to lawsuits and problems.”

The book’s chapters detail concerns a homebuilder or remodeler will face when launching the process to obtain a building permit in Malibu. “Which Code Do I Use?” “Is My House Grandfathered?” “How to Deal With a Nonconforming Structure” and, significantly, “What’s That Smell?”

“The planning approval process involves forms, reports, eight sets of plans, mailing labels and a radius map of every home within 500 feet of your project,” Tobias said. “You have to have the money to build or be a developer who can wait it out.”

This process hurts the normal family who might want to redo something on the property themselves, he argues.

Thus, the book is meant to serve as a guide to “newcomers to help them through the process,” he said.