Dark Skies and Western Malibu

Malibu has never been a “bright lights, big city” kind of place. That is especially true once one drives west past Malibu Canyon Road. None of the western neighborhoods have streetlights, and the beaches aren’t lit at night. 

Thus, the construction of permanent field lights at Malibu High School in 2011, as well as plans for a lighted parking lot at the campus, set off discord that continues among a significant portion of residents who cherish the nighttime views. 

During Malibu’s early days as a far-flung outpost of Los Angeles, the area attracted those who wanted to escape the city rather than live amidst the bustle. 

“I grew up here in the 50s and it was almost totally dark then,” Diane Pope, who lives on Cuthbert Road, wrote in an email. “They didn’t call it ‘dark skies,’ but that’s when no street lights was decided…We all knew to use flood lights only when needed— we couldn’t just leave them on [all night]. I wish you all could have seen the sky then. The Milky Way was amazing—like diamonds on black velvet.” 

One of the original architects for the Malibu West subdivision, Eugene Dvoretzky, now 86 years old, said in a phone interview, “That area was so far out, and so rural, that I don’t think anyone even thought about street lights at the time.” 

The first houses on nearby Point Dume were built even earlier, beginning in 1948, and the area’s 600 houses, condos and apartments still do not have street lights. 

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Malibu Park Junior High was partitioned in 1963 on 35 acres of land originally part of Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. When the high school was added in 1992, the Malibu Park Committee expressed concerns about whether the school intended to install night game lighting to Mike Matthews, the first principal at MHS. 

In a 1994 letter responding to the committee, Matthews wrote, “There are no plans to have night games at any time … In the long term future of the sports activities here (at Malibu High) I do not see a need for night lights.” 

Those plans later changed, when high school officials began to use temporary field lights for night football games in 2002, despite not possessing a conditional use permit (CUP) to do so. When the school district received permission from the California Coastal Commission to install permanent lights in 2011, some residents said they felt betrayed. 

Judi Hutchinson, a member of the 1994 Malibu Park Committee, has lived next to the school property for 45 years and has grandchildren attending MHS. 

“When this last Coastal Commission allowed the stadium lights, you can say goodbye to dark skies,” Hutchinson said. “They’re also putting in parking for 150 cars by the field with parking lights. It’ll just be one continuous sky glow. It’s the whole idea of what’s happening to Malibu.” 

Malibu Park resident Hans Laetz said he also cherishes dark skies, but feels the concern over the high school lights is “more of a social argument.” 

“We want people to congregate,” Laetz said. “We have a social responsibility to provide for our students and our neighborhood to have community involvement.” 

Laetz argued that the field lights are not the true source of light pollution in the area, because they are only on for limited times on designated nights of the year. The real culprit of light pollution in the area, he said, is landscaping lights illegally installed by homeowners in the area to illuminate trees and shrubs, often left on at all times of night. 

Marshall Thompson, who moved to Malibu Park in the 1990s, considers himself a part of the “dark skies” camp but understands the argument in favor of field lights. 

“I’m real into having kids have opportunities for sports, I think that’s a good community thing.” 

Thompson, who has four grown children, said there was a demographic shift occurring in Malibu Park with fewer older residents each year and more young families moving in. He feels that he and others who opposed lighting at the high school were portrayed as “anti-kid,” and “old geezers,” which he says was not the case. He noted that night lighting impacts the sensitive hunting behaviors of wildlife. Longtime residents, such as Hutchinson, were concerned that the high school field lights were just another example of increasing urbanization on the west side. 

“I think the situation people were reacting to was increased urbanization of the environment,” he said. “The lights were yet another arrow of what the city was formed around, which was to protect the environment.” 

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