Vital Zuman farm’s future uncertain after Donald Sterling’s purchase

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The owner of the Los Angeles Clippers has remained mum on what he will do with the 6-acre property after having bought it in foreclosure.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

As 2010 ended with the purchase of the Vital Zuman Organic Farm, Malibu locals and city officials are hoping the New Year will open a better and brighter future for the struggling farm-namely, that it remains open for business.

Since acquiring the site, no word has come from Donald Sterling on what the Los Angeles Clippers mogul intends to do with the 6-acre site off Pacific Coast Highway across from Heathercliff Road, after his $2.35-million purchase of the parcel last month. The property had gone into foreclosure prior to Sterling’s purchase.

Sterling’s representatives offered no comment on the status of the farm when contacted twice by The Malibu Times.

“It’s still ‘Mum’s the word,’” said Alan Cunningham, Vital Zuman owner, who noted that he hasn’t been informed by Sterling’s camp what he intends to do with the farm, a Malibu institution that’s been in Cunningham’s family for generations.

This week, city officials, including members of a special ad hoc committee, remained uncertain about Vital Zuman since the Sterling acquisition, but agreed that it should remain in its lasting agricultural incarnation.

“I think everyone hopes it will remain open to the public,” said Malibu City Council member Pamela Conley Ulich.

As for whether Sterling’s hold on Vital Zuman could mean a change in land use plans for the property, local codes may need changing to permit otherwise.

Joyce Parker-Bozylinski, the city’s planning division manager, said Vital Zuman is designated RR5, zoned for both rural and residential use. She said it’s zoned the same in the Local Coastal Plan, as well.

Ulich, along with Mayor Jefferson Wagner, comprise the city’s two-member committee, appointed to advise groups such as the California Coastal Commission on what they recommend as the best use of the farm property.

Wagner, who last week wrote to Sterling, a part-time Malibu resident, on the matter, held some critical words for the basketball team owner and real estate businessman, believing that Sterling has other plans in store for Vital Zuman, removing another piece of Malibu’s unique coastal charm in doing so.

“I can only speculate,” Wagner said, “but Mr. Sterling will probably allow [Cunningham] to operate the farm as it is now until he comes up with a scheme for what he plans to do with it.”

Ulich, Wagner and Mayor Pro Tem John Sibert say the city hasn’t had any intentions on purchasing the parcel, and can’t front the struggling farm any financing because Vital Zuman sits on private property.

Aside from efforts to help the farm from the municipal side, the farm, by all accounts, has been struggling ever since being placed in foreclosure. It leaves Vital Zuman in its most precarious state since its founding more than 55 years ago.

Cunningham’s parents, George and Alice, began the farm in 1955, lining groves of citrus and fig trees against rows of vegetable fields. Predating by several years the chemical- and preservative-laden factory farm machine commonplace today, the Cunninghams set out to grow produce organically.

“No Chemicals, No Chlorine” is one of the farm’s mantras-standards that Alan Cunningham still strives to maintain.

For the junior Cunningham, history was his career path as a student at UCLA, until he took over the family farm, approaching agriculture with academic insight.

Since then, Vital Zuman is known as a common destination for local elementary schools embarking on field trips, learning about the organic, non-pesticidal way of tilling, growing and harvesting.

At the local collegiate level, students from Pepperdine University’s Green Team have been involved with Vital Zuman, trekking to the farm as part of a special farm collective.

Emily Rose Reeder, a Pepperdine student who runs the Green Team, said farms like Vital Zuman are critical to the “future and fertility of Malibu.”

“The preservation of farmland such as the land that’s there is so important,” Reeder said.

June Louks is also a local organic grower who backs the presence of the farm.

“To have something like this in our community that we hold sacred puts the spotlight on sustainable agriculture in Malibu,” she said. “Having a heritage farm contributes environmentally, educationally and culturally.”