Sierra Club sues Coastal Commission over Pepperdine expansion

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Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission seeking to overturn its decision allowing Pepperdine University to expand its graduate school. The decision, made at the coastal panel’s October meeting in Oceanside, would allow more than 4-1/2 million cubic yards of grading, one of the largest cuts ever into the Santa Monica Mountains.

Commissioner Sara Wan, a resident of Malibu, and Commissioner Trent Orr were the only two opposing votes on a panel generally considered to be more environmentally friendly than previous commissions. Several other commissioners were absent from the controversial hearing. Wan and Orr voted to support the staff’s recommendation to deny the amendment to Pepperdine’s plan.

Commission staff biologist John Dixon testified on the recent discovery of eight acres of a rare and threatened California Needlegrass habitat, an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA). Dixon stated only a little more than 700 acres of the rare plant community still exist. An ecologist, who surveyed the site, reported spotting 35 different species of birds during only a half-hour of observation.

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 13 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Sierra Club bases part of its case on an earlier decision concerning protection of ESHAs. The club was part of a winning lawsuit at Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach in which a Superior Court appellate panel ruled earlier this year that an ESHA can not be mitigated offsite but must be protected. Thus, club officials say, the Needlegrass habitat must remain intact.

“The university staff is trying to find ways to use the Needlegrass,” said Talmage Campbell, Pepperdine’s director of Public Information. “Richard Stevens, a visiting botany professor from Hawaii, worked on a program of gathering native seed from the siteand using it on areas that are to be planted. We are trying.”

Besides the Needlegrass community, geologic instability of the area is another concern raised in the lawsuit. Coastal Commission staff found the approval of Pepperdine’s permit amendment request would violate two Public Resources Codes requiring the commission to “minimize risks to life and property in areas of high geologic hazard and to assure stability and structural integrity and prevent erosion” and “to minimize alteration to natural land forms.”

“The additional grading was a requirement of the Regional Planning Commission,” Campbell said. “Adjustments for where they want things to go and for stability of the slopes required extra grading.” The original plan included a little more than 3 million cubic feet. “All the graded earth stays on the site to make stable pads for the buildings. There would be no scarring.”

But environmentalists worry about changes to natural terrain adjacent to park land.

“Pepperdine is already clearly not in harmony with its surrounding natural environment,” said Marcia Hanscom, executive committee member of Sierra Club Angeles Chapter. “The campus is sited within a national recreation area directly across the street from a state park property, and natural surroundings must be respected. There are other ways to expand their campus without creating such harm to the environment.”

The lawsuit is supported by the Malibu Township Council and several Malibu homeowners associations, who have expressed concerns about the impact the project could bring to the neighboring community. It is projected that when the expansion is complete, the campus would have enrolled more students than the entire population of Malibu. Current enrollment is about 8,000 students.

While the Pepperdine campus borders the city of Malibu, it does not come under the jurisdiction of the city. When Malibu obtained cityhood 10 years ago, Pepperdine lobbied successfully to remain part of unincorporated Los Angeles County. Some say this was a strategic move to facilitate future expansion plans without the close scrutiny of Malibu’s city government.

The writ of mandate was filed by Joseph J. Brecher of Brecher & Volker in Oakland; Rachel Sater, also of Brecher & Volker; and Michelle Sypert, Esq., of Los Angeles. Brecher has represented Sierra Club and EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund in other cases.