The proposed Civic Center wetland plan


Opinion: Is it a possibility, politics or a pipe dream?


These past few weeks have seen the introduction of a major proposal by a group called the Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy (MCLC) to convert the roughly 90 undeveloped acres in the Malibu Civic Center area into a wetland. I must confess, I began to examine this proposal with a high degree of skepticism because of the peculiar timing of the proposal presentation, given the proximity to the next council election April 11. The proposal seemed to be tied to the re-election efforts of Walt Keller and Carolyn Van Horn with the support of Gil Segel (heading up the Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy) and Bob Purvey (who is orchestrating the Save the Wetland protests in the Civic Center). The timing of the presentation of the proposal appears to be part of a coordinated print- and cable-advertising campaign with Keller and Van Horn portraying themselves as the only true environmentalists left — holding the line against the evil developers. But, even though, in my own mind, the proposal seems to be a political device, I also know there are a number of very sincere people connected with the MCLC and this proposal who strongly believe in it. Thus, I decided to try to examine the plan on its merits, to calculate what it would mean to the community, what it would cost and where those dollars could come from. I got my information from city officials, engineers, wetland specialists and real estate brokers. I have read most of the numerous reports and studies on the Malibu Civic Center and lagoon areas. There remain many unknowns. And, for that reason, this analysis, particularly in the area of cost, is by no means complete.

The proposed plan

No one can accuse the MCLC of not being ambitious. The plan is staggering in its size and scope and its plans for the Civic Center are impressive. Of the roughly 90 undeveloped, mostly commercially zoned acres in the Civic Center, this plan intends to put almost one half of the land under water, with three distinct but connected wetland lakes. That means a substantial portion of the Chili Cook-off site, the area to the west of that and part of the area north of Civic Center Way (see map) would all be wet. Additionally, in order for the wetland to work, biologically, it would have to be connected to the ocean via Malibu Creek or Malibu Lagoon. Experts have suggested that be accomplished by tunneling under the developed area of the Civic Center and/or under Pacific Coast Highway. Pumping station(s) and lining of the wetland areas would be required to prevent the water from percolating down and raising the water table in the Civic Center and Malibu Colony areas (thus exacerbating existing septic problems). For the system to work as designed, creek or lagoon water for the wetland would be cleaned (“polished” is the word used). The monitoring and maintenance of water quality would, no doubt, require a full-time biologist and staff. Designed and operating at peak efficiency, the wetland would attract and support a wide range of wildlife. If anything goes awry (like poor circulation, mud slides, pollution from sources upstream, etc.) the system could fail and quickly turn into a smelly and mosquito-infested swamp.

The estimated costs

While feasible from an engineering perspective, everything I mentioned previously is difficult and expensive. One group of experts concluded the plan would be biologically unfeasible and the cost of land, construction and maintenance would be prohibitive. Currently, the land in question is held by multiple owners, with the Malibu Bay Company holding about half. Almost all of the land is zoned for commercial development. The Wetland Plan calls for the purchase of the entire area, with the majority being converted to wetland and a portion allocated to the development of ballfields (in the area adjacent to City Hall).

Land and development costs

Malibu Bay Company Civic Center holdings

Chili Cook-off site 19. 61 acres

Ioki parcel 9.28 acres

Smith parcel 7.10 acres

Winter Canyon parcel 4.21 acres

Island parcel 1.11 acres

Total 41.31 acres

The general opinion was that these commercial zoned properties were worth from $750,000 to $1,000,00 per acre in the current market. The price varied somewhat because of location and how far along they were in the development process.

Land Cost $31 to $40 million dollars for land

Excavation and dirt removal = $3 million to excavate (the site is above sea level so to dig a hole for the water it was estimated that 365,000 cubic yards (from Chili site alone) would have to be removed at $8 per cubic yard

Excavation and dirt removal $3 million

Total MBC Civic Center land costs $34 million to $43 million

Other property in Civic Center (not owned by Malibu Bay Company)

Yamaguchi parcels 5 acres (off Stuart Ranch Road)

10 acres (Greenhouse)

Land cost =15 acres at $650,000 per acre $9.75 million

Old Knapp parcel (La Paz) 6 acres (on Civic Center Way)

9 acres (behind skateboard park)

Land cost = 15 acres at $650,000 per acre $9.75 million

Shultz parcels 2.3 acres (corner of CCW)

3.5 acres (skateboard park)

Land cost = 5.8 acres at $650,00 per acre $ 3.77 million

Pepperdine/Wave parcel 9.0 acres

Land cost = 9 acres at $800,000 per acre $7.2 million

Total other land costs

(44.8 acres at avg. $680,00 per acre) $30.45 million

excavation costs $3 million

Land and site preparation

(cost for walkways, benches, ballfields, restrooms, other amenities, are generally calculated by cities at approx. $200,000 per acre for park-type construction). Cost of 86.11 acres at $200,000 per acre

Total build-out cost 86.11 acres at $200,000 per acre) = $17.2 million

We’re not through yet. In order to get the wetland to work, the expert opinion was they would have to extend the lagoon that’s south of the bridge on PCH by another 300 feet and take about 4.28 acres of what is now a 9-hole golf course with a stone wall built around it that is adjacent to the Malibu Colony and is among the most expensive land in Malibu.

Land cost = 4.28 acres $33 million

Excavation and removal cost $500,000

Install a culvert under Pacific Coast Highway, so the wetland connects with the lagoon and the ocean. Estimated it would take 4 culverts 10-by-40 feet for the design to work.

Construction cost $7 million

Include design elements that would address potential for flooding and water quality problems, (including berming and drainage control.

Estimated cost $2 million

EIR(State)/EIS (Federal) $250,000

Unknown costs (est. 5-plus %) $5 million-$10 million

What’s missing are engineering, design, architecture, accounting, legal (here are bound to be some lawsuits), biologists, wetland experts, studies , etc., which easily could run another 20 percent to 30 percent of the project cost.

Soft costs $30 million

The total overall project cost $162 million-$175 million


When you sum it all up, the proposed Wetland Project is a major development, the likes of which Malibu has never seen before. And, while the proposal might be justified on environmental grounds, the reality is the cure may be worse than the disease. The creation of what is essentially a 45-acre, man-made lake would take years to construct, and would require the removal and transportation of an enormous amount of soil (if, indeed, a place can be found to accept it at a reasonable cost).

To put this into perspective, if the dirt removal required by the Kanan-Dume Road fix was a major cost factor, the amount to be removed required by the wetland project can be likened to building the Panama Canal! In addition, the engineers estimate it would take three to five years to complete the project once the land has been acquired and 50 or so different governmental agencies (with completely different agendas) to complete their own studies and sign off on the plan and issue the necessary permits. For a small city like Malibu, with a $12 million annual budget and without other significant funding sources, to consider being the lead agency in a project of this magnitude is almost laughable.

So, where might this money come from? According to the MCLC and Keller and Van Horn, it will come from the Bond Acts Propositions 12 and 13, government grants and private contributions. But there’s a catch. Assuming the city could get bond money or other government grants, which in my opinion is highly improbable since most of that money is already committed, these funds always come with the proviso requiring the land to be purchased from “willing sellers.” This means the city cannot use its powers of condemnation if it intends to use these sources. So, what makes a seller “willing?” That one is simple. The more the city is willing to pay, the more the seller is willing to sell. And, if all the land-cost estimates are based on today’s market values and conditions, forget them! With the wetland project in the offing, just about any Civic Center landholder has the power to kill the deal by refusing to sell, and the term “willing seller” translates to “willing for a price.” And, if the city can’t or doesn’t want to pay that price and chooses the condemnation route, there’ll be no grants or government help, and it’s back to the citizenry for money.

When you take this into consideration, my original estimate of $162 million to $175 million could easily balloon up to $200 million to $250 million-plus as we sweeten the pot to get them to sell.

Now, consider a few of the non-economic factors. The Malibu Knolls area, which had reservations about a golf driving range and senior citizen housing, will now be required to look down at ballfields in constant use. Our large community of ground squirrels (non-endangered) will have to be relocated or drown while other species will have to be protected. Certainly, the addition of all this water will create a major shift in our biota, not to mention the effects on the surf zone (for better or for worse). Then, there’s the traffic impact as thousands of round trips of large, gas-guzzling, air-polluting trucks transport tons of excavated soil over many months to create our 45-acre lake. One has only to recall the impact made on our lives during the rebuilding of the Malibu Creek Bridge or the Kanan-Dume repairs, or the La Costa hill Stabilization , to understand the estimated costs I’ve come up with may, in fact, be conservative.

A wetland sanctuary, perfectly designed, constructed and managed, is a worthy vision. And the management of our undeveloped areas in a manner that serves our community while preserving the environment is a responsibility of citizenship. However, those who hold out this plan as responsible and achievable are fooling you, if not themselves, wasting previous time, energy and resources that could be directed at finding practical alternatives.

Is any of it realistic? Or, is it just a campaign pipe dream? You be the judge.