City Council Approves New House in Big Rock Landslide Zone

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A proposed new house in the middle of the Big Rock landslide zone was approved Monday night, October 11, by the Malibu City Council. The council also voted to continue its meetings via Zoom, and heard suggestions that commercial businesses get steep fines for leaving garbage bins open and overflowing. 

The Big Rock appeal was yet another 3-2 vote, with Bruce Silverstein and Steve Uhring casting the “no” votes.

The applicant for the house was asking for the same type of hillside rule variance that his neighbors got decades ago from the county, to build houses on steep hills that turned out to be landslide areas.

The applicant, Johnathen Day, pointed to thick city studies that showed his house will be as safe as all the other houses on the Big Rock Mesa.

“I have been at this, trying to build a house, on a lot zoned for residential, for over seven years now,” Day said. “I have literally followed what I was told to do by the city every step of the way: make adjustments that I thought would be improvements for neighbors, improvements for view corridors, make it better for people in the area.”

The opponents, his neighbors, say that the city failed to require earthquake studies. And they said the house could further destabilize the Big Rock Mesa.

For centuries, Big Rock Mesa has been an active landslide. In 1966 there was a landslide, and more earth movement was noted in 1983. A dewatering system—holes drilled into the mesa to drain water—has stabilized things for the 327 houses on the mesa in eastern Malibu.

Opponents, represented by Don Kowalewsky, said houses that were built in the past decades could not be built now: “You have a variance that may be allowable form a planning standpoint, but you do not have a variance from the building code.

“And the building code very clearly states when you can and cannot do a new habitable building in a landslide,” Kowalewsky said. “And a new habitable structure is not allowable.”

Silverstein accused the city staff of taking sides, in favor of the applicant.

“The staff has gone through contortions to authorize this project,” he said. “And it is inconceivable that they are not going to the same contortions to approve the seismic study that is ultimately done after the fact or the displacement study that is going to be done after the fact.”

Uhring said requiring a seismic study for the construction, after the variance is granted, simply reinforces the attitude among some that city hall is acting in secret.

The council majority voted—in effect—that the city staff could be trusted to look at the seismic tests objectively.

Garbage bins

Also Monday night, the city council heard from an anti-poison activist that Malibu’s shopping centers—and the businesses in them—are reported to be doing a terrible job keeping their garbage bins locked.

The city has a new ordinance that requires garbage bins to be clamped shut and locked to prevent over-spilling and to keep the rat population down.

Poison Free Malibu’s Kian Schulman showed the Malibu City Council picture after picture of overflowing unlocked bins. She said the overflowing bins feed overflowing rodent populations.

“Tenants enforcement needs to be increased to at least once a month until the trash is under control,” Schulman said. “A rigorous application of fines can help pay for the extra workload for the inspectors.

“The very wealthy property owners should not be allowed to cause health issues [and] trash our streams, watersheds and oceans.”

City officials said they have seen the same problem. Some shopping centers have agreed to schedule trash disposal on weekends to prevent overflowing bins.

But city council members Monday said the answer may be to increase fines for business owners breeding rats by failing to control their garbage.

Schulman, founder of Poison Free Malibu, has been documenting Malibu garbage bin overflows for years. The item was not on the agenda, but some council members said they agreed that fines need to be stepped up, as the current inspection scheme is not working.

The discussion happened on the night that the city accepted an award from a national environmental organization, the Blue City Network. 

And city staff said they have cut the power bill at City Hall by 30 percent by turning the heating and cooling system off at night—a $20,000 per year savings. 

The city council also delayed for two weeks a decision on a request by Verizon to upgrade wireless antennas on Pacific Coast Highway. Silverstein said he did not have enough time to read and digest the hundreds of pages of background material, supplied by the city staff last Thursday.

Under federal law, Verizon is entitled to a decision from the city on “shot clock” of either 60 or 90 days, depending on the type of installation planned. Under federal law and FCC rules, cities are not allowed to use concerns about 5G or other wireless service as a factor in denying service.

The wireless company agreed as a courtesy to the delay.

Also, the city council decided not to change the COVID-19-related restrictions on city council meetings.

All council members, staff and other people will remain isolated on their computers for at least the next month.