From the Publisher: A Scandal That Never Was

Arnold G. York

Some of you have a called me about a story that ran in the Surfside News last week, and, although the story was somewhat obtuse, as often appears to be the Surfside style, bottom line is that they were charging that there was some chicanery involved in Karen and my relationship with the City, relating to a wall that was rebuilt on our hillside in 2006 or so. 

I can well understand why Surfside might have thought that they had a hot story, even if it was a bit stale. Surfside News, being basically a Chicago operation, brings a certain Chicago sensibility to newspapering in Malibu. To put it more succinctly, Chicagoans have a strong belief that if the government is involved in anything, someone must have been paid off or given special favors. My guess is that in Chicago, that might not be an unreasonable assumption. Clearly, they don’t know Malibu. I’ve actually had a developer say to me, “I wish I could pay someone off rather than going through endless hearings and creating endless reports with expensive lawyers and expensive experts running their billing meters 24/7. Democracy is damned expensive.”

But, to return to the story, anyone who has lived in Malibu for a few years soon finds out that stuff happens. (I’ve cleaned that sentence up since we are a family newspaper.) We get fires like the ones in 1993 and 2007, landslides, road closures, mud slides and, believe it or not, rainy seasons where the rain comes down for days. I’ve seen little Las Flores Creek, barely a dribble today, looking like the Missouri River in a flood, with a Volkswagen being swept down the creek.

The years 2005-06 were just that kind of period, with record-breaking, 100-year storms, flooding and landslides. Karen and I were in bed one night and we awoke to an enormous clatter, which turned out not to be Santa and his reindeer, but a concrete retaining wall around the hillside, which had collapsed onto the street below.

The City of Malibu, of course, responded in typical bureaucratic fashion and said, whatever it is, it’s not our fault and you Yorks have to get your collapsed wall off our road, immediately. The “immediately” made sense because the road provided access to upper La Costa and all its homes, as well as access for the fire department engines.

We immediately called our very competent lawyer Richard Scott, and then we all did a little investigating. We discovered that the wall that collapsed was in fact built in 1929 or 1930 by the developer when the La Costa housing tract was first developed. The developer apparently cut the road to provide access to the tract and then built the wall to keep the hillside from sliding onto the road. Thereafter, he just cut up the lots and, since we were the first lot (with a magnificent view, I might add), we ended up with the wall on our property when we bought the property in 1976. We also discovered that when you become a city, as Malibu did in 1991, the city accepts all of the roads as it steps into the shoes of the county, and it’s as if the City had owned the public lands since 1929 and as if the City had approved the original tract. When you become a city, you kind of have to accept the good and the bad. 

You can imagine our delight when we went back to the City and were able to say “That’s your wall that fell onto your road, so you clear it and fix it. Additionally, that wall, which is a public improvement, has been sitting on our land since 1929 without any written easements or other paperwork, which wasn’t terribly unusual back in 1929. So, if you will just wait a moment, we will calculate the rental for using our land without payment since 1929, and, because we’re reasonable people, we will waive the interest.”

It was clear this was going to be a very interesting and expensive lawsuit, so we put our collective lawyerly heads together and came up with a much better solution. Since the Governor had declared a state of emergency and since FEMA was already here rebuilding, we all decided that the best policy was to see if we could get Uncle Sam to pay for it, which they ultimately did, except for a some roughly $25,000-$29,000, which we reluctantly agreed to pick up. We also gave the City a piece of our land so they could build a new retaining wall.

When the deal went down, none of us was sure what it would ultimately cost and what FEMA would pay. It was several years before the final bill came down and we gave the City a lien against the property for the balance.

So ends the saga of the wall.