Return of the yurts

A stalled resort project originally proposed for Latigo Canyon is making a comeback but meeting stiff opposition from city and county officials and canyon residents.

The rustic camp was designed to accommodate 300-plus visitors in 95 circular, wood-framed, fabric-covered tent cabins similar to the yurts traditionally used by Mongol nomads. The upscale Malibu version — manufactured by Pacific Yurts, Inc. of Oregon — would have wooden floors, solid doors, indoor plumbing, kitchens, fireplaces and other amenities unknown to the Siberian tribes, whose portable homes were just animal hides lashed to collapsible frames.

The project was initiated nearly a decade ago by then landowner Irwin “Red” Lachman, who described the rustic camp as a New Age retreat, a quiet place for study and environmental research. Architect Ron Goldman, Lachman’s partner on the project, called it an “ecologically friendly” retreat.

Residents, however, took a dim view and launched a bitter campaign to squash the plan, which had won approval in November 1992 from the California Coastal Commission (over the objections of 40 residents who packed the hearing) and two years later, from the Los Angeles County Planning Department, partly on Lachman’s assurance the camp would be made available five days a week to give inner-city youngsters a place to study nature.

The original proposal included 123 units in 95 yurts, ranging in size from 210 to 625 square feet; a 7,000-square-foot fitness center, an 8,000-square-foot dining hall, three tennis courts, two swimming pools and an outdoor “natural” amphitheater for classes and lectures. Goldman told the commission the project would be designed to conserve energy, reduce toxic emissions, conserve land forms and recycle runoff. The architect told the City Council in 1993 that he was committed to maintaining the beauty and peacefulness and the quiet quality of the canyon. “We will not manipulate the environment to make visitors more comfortable,” he said.

In its original approval, the commission stated the project fits the local Land Use Plan designation described in its staff report as “low-intensity, visitor-serving commercial recreation.” Neighboring resident Steve Best said at the hearing it was actually a “hotel and convention center.”

After spending about $18,000 on preliminary work — brush clearance and a septic system — Lachman reportedly ran into financial difficulties. The Coastal Commission, however, deemed the work sufficient to state, “development has commenced” and reactivated his development permit. County planners followed the state agency’s lead although such permits expire after two years if construction has not begun.

Richard Weintraub, who bought the land with the approved building plot plan for $1.45 million in September, said he plans to invest about $7 million more to complete the project, which would include organic gardens along Escondido Creek.

Two Latigo Canyon residents bent on blocking the project sought support from the City Council Monday, although the canyon site lies just outside the city’s jurisdiction. Councilwoman Joan House requested the matter be placed on an upcoming agenda; Councilman Walt Keller suggested the next meeting. Councilman Harry Barovsky urged coordination with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who said county planners’ approval was an error and “an embarrassment” to the county and has vowed to force full public hearings and environmental review.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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