Court Decision Nail in Coffin for ‘The Edge’ Sweetwater Mesa Development

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David Evans—The Edge—performs with the rock band U2.

U2 guitarist The Edge—aka David Evans—may be better known in Malibu for his long-denied dream of building five houses on Sweetwater Mesa than for his role in the prolific Irish rock group. Now, it seems as if his plan to build homes on the central Malibu ridgeline is less attainable than ever, after a judgment made last Thursday in the California Court of Appeals once again closed the door on the project. 

According to court documents, the five-home project, proposed by Evans and other investors, should never have been approved by the California Coastal Commission (CCC). Rather, the decision falls under the jurisdiction of LA County, because the county has a Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Plan in effect; essentially, the commission overstepped its bounds. What this means for Evans and other investors is they will have to start over again, this time working with the county to gain approval for the development.

The proposed homes, which ranged in square footage from 7,812 sq. ft. to 9,572 sq. ft., underwent various changes in order to make them fit narrow stipulations mandated by the California Coastal Commission (CCC). The project included an open space easement of 137 acres granted to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. Originally, Evans requested the houses take up 9.2 acres of the bluff; that was later condensed to 4.3 acres. The total site is 151 acres.

Many of these changes came about in 2011 after the CCC originally rejected the project’s 2010 application.

Coastal Commission Director Jack Ainsworth—who was deputy director at the time—admitted the proposal was in violation of the Coastal Act. 

“That whole area up there is considered to be environmentally sensitive habitat area, so under the Coastal Act, technically it would not be consistent with the policies to protect sensitive areas,” Ainsworth said in 2014. However, the CCC said it was compelled to allow some kind of development on the parcels due to their zoning—to avoid what’s known as a “taking,” where the government stops a property owner from making lawful use of his or her land.

Finally, in late 2015, the commission approved the plans. Almost immediately, they were challenged in court by environmental nonprofit the Sierra Club.

The plans have been tied up in court since January 2016; first, Sierra Club lawyers filed a petition for a writ of mandate asking that the court stop the project from proceeding. When that was thrown out, the club appealed on several grounds: According to the club, the commission failed to properly study the environmental impact of the development, abused its discretion because the project violated the local coastal plan, and was incorrect in stating denial of the project would constitute a taking.

According to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant, the California Coastal Commission simply did not have the authority to approve the projects.

In a message Sierra Club attorney Dean Wallraff sent to members—which was later shared with The Malibu Times—Wallraff described the win as “narrow.” He summarized Chalfant’s decision: “Once LA County adopted its Local Coastal Program for the area, the Coastal Commission no longer had jurisdiction to approve the permits, so those permits are voided.”

“But we won, which will make it much harder for the developers to do the project,” the attorney added. “For now, the 155 acres will remain undisturbed.”