Sierra Club sues city over Forge Lodge project

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After losing before the City Council, the Sierra Club goes to court to block project. Opponents charge Sierra uses a double standard.

By Jonathan Friedman/Special to the Malibu Times

A Sierra Club lawsuit has added another chapter to the Forge Lodge saga, further delaying a project that has seen its fair share of setbacks. The Sierra Club filed the suit against the City of Malibu last Monday in response to the City Council’s approval of the proposed 27-unit bed and breakfast complex along the northeast corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Corral Canyon Road. This, despite the council having reduced the size of each unit from the Planning Commission’s recommendation of 680 square feet to 580 square feet.

“We approved a scaled-down rural project, and that still wasn’t good enough for them,” Councilmember Sharon Barovsky frustratingly said at last Monday’s meeting.

The suit alleges the project was approved with a defective Environmental Impact Report that does not address many issues. And Dave Brown, conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, dismissed the council’s attempt to weaken the project as not good enough. He said more must be done to protect the ongoing reintroduction of steelhead trout to nearby Solstice Canyon Creek. He added that a main concern is the project would be within the 100-foot setback of the surrounding environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA).

“The city’s own code says that this is not allowed,” he said.

But when Brown brought this up at the April council meeting, Councilmember Jeff Jennings pointed out that the code says the 100-foot rule must be followed, if feasible.

Brown said the project requires many changes, among them putting the buildings further from the stream and placing the parking lot closer to it. He said this would create less noise and light. At the meeting, Brown presented a diagram of his plan, but the council did not take it into consideration.

“We asked the city to make changes in the project that would eliminate or remove or minimize the impact from the stream,” Brown said. “They basically refused to do it.”

Owners of the BeauRivage restaurant and the project’s applicants, Daniel and Luciana Forge, and the project’s architect, Mike Barsochinni, in the past have complained that a double standard seems to exist when it comes to ESHA violations.

For example, the construction that has been taking place in Solstice Canyon Park, near to where the inn would be, has put a foundation for an open-air education center right next to the creek, and other major alterations seemed to have taken place near the creek. The National Park Service (NPS) claims that the shelter next to the creek does not need an ESHA setback as it is not a structure that people would live in.

Brown and the Sierra Club’s attorney, Frank Angel, also allege that Sierra Club representatives have attempted numerous times to try to work out a situation that would be helpful to both sides, but the Forges and their people have been uncooperative. Brown blames what he considers to be the project’s architect non-negotiable attitude as a reason for why the situation has arrived where it is.

“This didn’t have to happen,” Brown said. “He (Barsocchini) took a rather hard-line position here, and was not willing to compromise. And so now we’re before the judge.”

Barsocchini said he would comment on the lawsuit at a later time, as did Daniel Forge. The Forge’s attorney, Paul Shoop, did not return phone calls.

One issue that has been mentioned several times in response to the Sierra Club’s opposition to the project is that it has not taken the same attitude toward the NPS action in the Solstice Creek area. Some say its effort to reintroduce the steelhead has caused damage to the area as well as other projects it has done. But Brown said it is untrue that the Sierra Club has not been closely watching them.

“I’ve grilled them on this, believe me, because I’ve heard the same arguments,” he said.

Although Brown admitted the NPS is not innocent of doing anything wrong, he said any damage that has been done has been minimal and has led to beneficial outcomes.

Although the council approved the project, it is still not known whether the Forges wanted to go through with it based on the new size requirements. Daniel Forge had declined to comment whether he would, but did say he would not challenge the decision, because he has already spent too many years and too much money trying to get the project done.