Coastal Commission says ‘lights out’ at Malibu High

Parents say they may plan a “civil disobedience” act to challenge the ruling.

By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times

Night football games at Malibu High School are a thing of the past unless the city can do something about it. The California Coastal Commission voted unanimously last week at its meeting in Oceanside to deny the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s request for temporary lights during football games. The city council on Monday vowed to fight the ruling.

The Coastal Commission ruling came despite a staff recommendation to grant the school district the right to light the field 16 nights per year. Among the reasons the commissioners voted to oppose the request is that a table contained in the Malibu Local Coastal Program lists “Sports courts (lighted)” as a prohibited use in Institutional Zones, which is the zoning designation for Malibu High and all schools in Malibu.

California Coastal Commission Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth told the commissioners during the hearing that when Coastal Commission staff wrote the Malibu LCP, it was never the intention to ban lights at public sports fields, but rather for private homes. The commissioners said that didn’t matter.

“I don’t know how you can just say at this point, ‘Oops we didn’t mean to put that there,’” said Commissioner Sara Wan, who is a Malibu resident. “Whether you meant it or not, it’s there. You can’t treat an LCP that way. You can’t treat what’s in the LCP and say, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter and this entire table has no meaning.’ Because if you say that’s the case, then you say it for everything else that’s in this table.”

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Malibu High School has been lighting its athletic field for night football games for many years. This has actually been a violation of a Coastal Commission permit. When the Coastal Commission approved a permit for the upgrading of Malibu High’s athletic complex in 2000, lighting was banned, although the district never actually requested a permit for lighting. The request that went before the Coastal Commission last week was for an amendment to the permit.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, several council members spoke poorly of the Coastal Commission ruling. Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Barovsky called it “despicable” and Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich said it was “not American” that a state agency, which has a membership that is appointed rather than elected, can make such a decision. Urged by some parents who came to the meeting, the council decided to start an expedited process toward amending the LCP to allow for temporary lights at the school.

The Zoning Ordinance Revisions and Code Enforcement Subcommittee, which consists of council members John Sibert and Jefferson Wagner, will discuss an LCP amendment soon. A proposal will then go to the full city council. An LCP amendment must receive Coastal Commission approval.

Malibu Township Council President Steve Uhring, who attended the Coastal Commission hearing in opposition to the lights proposal, advised the city council not to amend the LCP.

“I would think long and hard before you change the LCP and place control of all these sites into the hands of a school board controlled by folks who do not live in Malibu, who do not even need Malibu votes to get elected,” Uhring said.

Uhring, several Malibu residents and Sierra Club representatives spoke at the Coastal Commission hearing in opposition to the school district request. No Malibu residents spoke in support of the proposal, although a few district representatives did.

The opponents said the lights would harm nearby wildlife and scenic views. Coastal Commission staff said this was not the case. The opponents also feared this was just the first step in a process toward the school district requesting permanent lights for the field. A long-range plan for the school district had been for permanent lights, although the Board of Education plans to vote on rescinding that concept at its meeting this Thursday in Santa Monica.

But several Coastal Commissioners said even if the school district promised it would never request lights for any sports other than football; it might not be able to keep that promise if it were sued over issues involving Title IX, the U.S. law requiring gender equality in academic activities, with a focus on sports.

“By allowing one sport, which as far as I know … is only for boys … the odds of seeing this before us to allow girls sports is very high,” Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said. “If we were to approve this, we would have given up the position of prohibiting lights on the field.”

The district must decide what its next step will be. It could request the Coastal Commission reconsider the item. It could also file a lawsuit against the state. Or it could wait to see what happens with the city’s LCP amendment process. Superintendent Time Cuneo, who called the Coastal Commission ruling “extremely disappointing,” said district staff is currently discussing the options.

The school’s Homecoming game is scheduled for Nov. 13. Unless something changes before that time, it will be played during the daytime. Conley Ulich asked city staff to look into the possibility of having the game played at Malibu Bluffs Park, which has lights. City Manager Jim Thorsen said he did not believe the park is big enough, but staff would look into it. School activist Laura Rosenthal told The Malibu Times in an interview this week that parents might use “civil disobedience” to challenge the ruling.

“There are a few ideas that people are throwing around,” said Rosenthal, who declined to discuss specifics.

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