From the Publisher, Arnold G. York: Money talks, governmental agencies walk

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There are many things happening in Malibu these days so it’s time for a quick tour of the highs and the lows.

First, the big fight about the Malibu Lagoon restoration or destruction, depending on whom you listen to, is being settled like many of Malibu’s major battles-in a courtroom. After listening to all of the ranting and ravings I still can’t decide if it’s a good and environmentally sound project that will improve the lagoon, or just a boondoggle because there is a bunch of bond money available and there are many itchy palms trying to get a piece of it. You don’t get any bond money unless there is a project, which immediately raises my skepticism antennae. I’d feel much better about the project if they weren’t tearing out the little bridge that gives people access to the beach. However, despite all the environmental brouhaha, that doesn’t seem to be a major issue for most of the environmentalists. I guess money trumps everything else.

Along those lines, the people behind what everyone calls “The Edge” development, seem to have worked out a deal with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which is the state agency run by Joe Edmiston. The Conservancy was opposed to the project, which would have built five architecturally interesting luxury homes up in the hills not far from the Civic Center. But the Conservancy soon found its reasons for opposing it weren’t as profound as they thought when the project’s developers came up with $1 million or so to ameliorate the environmental pain, and they’ve withdrawn their opposition. Some people have charged that the deal doesn’t pass the smell test. I don’t have any problem with the project, which puts the five homes on five quite large pieces of land, but I’m wondering what the California Coastal Commission is going to do when the project goes back to them. Do they get another million also, or have they unofficially signed off on the project already? Time alone will tell.

There is a bigger issue involved in all these fees and environmental offsets or donations of developer funds to make up for so-called environmental damages caused by a project. We all know that we are going through some very tight budget times, which leaves many state, county and local agencies scrambling for dollars just to keep themselves afloat. Raising money through developers and developments is a time-honored method of raising dollars for civic improvements. It’s been used to pay for new schools, roads and parks. The problem is trying to decide what’s a good a project and what’s not, and does money impact that analysis. It also has led to charges from some that it’s a way for governmental agencies to shake down applicants to donate public easements and trails and such because if you don’t go along with the program, you don’t get your permits. On a whole, it works reasonably well when the developers are large and well moneyed, and hire expensive talent to represent them. It doesn’t work so well when it’s little Joe Homeowner and he doesn’t have big bucks to fight the agencies. In that situation, the agency simply dictates that this is the way it is, take it or leave it.

Being a bit of a policy wonk and equally curious about how well our system really works, Capitol Weekly, our Sacramento newspaper, is hosting an all-day, non-partisan, hopefully unbiased, conference on the California Coastal Commission, June 23, in Sacramento (check out capitolweekly.net for details and registration information). Strangely, considering the power and the impact of the California Coastal Commission, there has been little oversight of the agency by the Legislature, which first created the Commission in 1976 when a young governor named Jerry Brown was in office. We figured it was time to take a look. This lack of legislative oversight is not unique to the Coastal Commission. These days, particularly with term limits, the Legislature tends to turn much of the everyday business of the government over to the state agencies without much systematic oversight. In the future, we intend to hold conferences on a number of topics that impact both state and local areas like public pensions, retirement rules and funding for prisons, schools and the courts.

Lastly, locally it looks like the Trancas Gardens Nursery got a reprieve due to community involvement, but sooner or later the city is going to have to address that fact that our commercial real estate is becoming so expensive that local stores have to leave because they can’t pay the rents. If the city wants to preserve the modestly priced retail base, it is going to have to become a great deal more creative or, in time, we’ll lose most of that modest base.