Conspiracy Theories Abound at Council Meeting

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News that Caltrans would be shutting down lanes of Pacific Coast Highway in March to construct a crosswalk across PCH at the Malibu Beach Inn caught commuters off guard—but they weren’t the only ones.

City officials seemed just as surprised as residents when the project began.

“The city’s Public Works Department meets regularly with Caltrans to coordinate projects, schedules and communications to the public… Unfortunately, the city isn’t always informed of Caltrans’ upcoming projects in a timely manner, because Caltrans is a huge entity with many departments,” officials said in a statement to The Malibu Times in April. 

This week, City Council Member Skylar Peak called engineers from Caltrans to the Monday night Malibu City Council meeting to ask them just how this project came to be—and share his skepticism that everything was done above-board.

Caltrans district permit engineer and office of permits chief Godson K. Okereke described the basis for the permit, saying that first and foremost it came out of a December 2016 agreement between former owners of the Malibu Beach Inn and the California Coastal Commission. In that agreement, hotel owners promised to provide more beach access, which would include a crosswalk.

“When the request was brought to us, we looked at a few documents, such as the consent agreement between Coastal Commission and the original owners of the property where the Malibu Beach Inn sits. That consent agreement requires the building of the staircases—the stairs to the beachfront—from behind the building, and also a crosswalk that’s within 200 feet of those staircases,” Okereke described. He added other factors, including the 2015 PCH safety study.

Multiple council members alleged that beach access and safety were not the only factors—citing plans Malibu Beach Inn owners have described to add valet parking at the Hertz lot across PCH from the hotel.

“When I talk to members of the public, the way they view this, is that the only reason for this is for the benefit of Malibu Beach Inn … they would like to add a pool,” Peak said following the presentation. “They’d like to add a pool on the beach and relocate some of their parking to the mountain side of the highway, where they can do that, and that that was the only reason for any of this to happen.”

Peak went on to say that the reasoning presented by Caltrans was difficult to believe.

“With coming here and saying that [a benefit to the Malibu Beach Inn] has no impact on the reasoning for this, I just don’t buy that argument,” Peak said. “I’ve never bought that argument.”

Peak and other council members expressed concern that residents thought there was a grand conspiracy between the city and the Malibu Beach Inn to allow the crosswalk to be built.

“Certain people have fueled these conspiracy things, Skylar, and maybe where you’re coming from is that all of a sudden there’s a crosswalk associated with the access steps, and where did that come from, and I think what we’re hearing from now is that it came from … negotiations between Malibu Beach Inn and the Coastal Commission, that the city was not a part of it,” Council Member Laura Rosenthal said, describing that there was a “decree” from Coastal approving the crosswalk. How that jumped to a conspiracy theory involving the city, Rosenthal said, she could not understand. “Somewhere in there, there was a conspiracy that the city wanted to see whatever the Malibu Beach Inn wanted, or something like that. I guess that’s the part I’m missing. That there was some kind of closed door stuff people were referring to.”

Council members gave various reasons for why the crosswalk should not be approved, including a potential increase in traffic collisions, more traffic congestion and the allegation that the beach access stairs in question lead to a portion of beach that is both dangerous and virtually unusable. 

But according to Caltrans, the agency did its due diligence and it was too late to change things now.

“It appears there were studies and documents on the city’s website and we had every impression that this wouldn’t be a problem to the city,” Okereke said, later adding, “We can look at all of this again but at this point, I don’t see any legal or adequate reason to either suspend or withdraw this permit.”

In the end, Mayor Rick Mullen said, it was the city’s fault that they were not more involved in the process.

“They’re doing their job,” Mullen said. “Probably, maybe, we dropped the ball and should have a better reviewing process on this, even if we don’t have a dog in the fight, legally.”

Council voted unanimously, 5-0, to receive and file the report, with a request to Caltrans that “if anything like this comes up again, it comes before us.”