Coastal strikes conciliatory note

Malibu residents and officials fill up the room at a coastal hearing to finally voice their concerns directly to commissioners regarding the Coastal Commission’s draft local coastal plan for Malibu.

By Ken Gale /Special to the Malibu Times

The shrill war of words between Malibu and the California Coastal Commission jumped to a higher plane last week and took on a new tenor.

For the first time since commission staff revealed its draft of a local coastal plan (LCP) for Malibu in September, the city had a chance to raise its concerns before the actual commissioners themselves at a hearing in downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 15.

The 11 commissioners were in a conciliatory mood, even after listening to nearly four hours of comments from residents, community activist groups and city politicos.

To start with, Commission Chair Sara Wan announced the commission would not act on its staff plan until January, after it had studied all the comments from residents as well as officials of the city. Wan also appointed herself and fellow Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill as a subcommittee to work directly with Malibu officials to create a final LCP.

“I believe we can do this,” said McClain-Hill. “I invite you to sit down at a table with Chair Wan and me. Let’s go over this draft paragraph by paragraph to work out the issues that you have.”

Other commissioners urged concerned citizens to make direct contact with them. They seemed to be opening the way for the city and its activists to circumvent recent problems with Coastal Commission staff and establish new lines of communication.

Lack of communication has been a major bone of contention between the city and commission staff, headed by Executive Director Peter Douglas.

Douglas, in a letter to Mayor Joan House, accused the city of refusing to cooperate with the commission to draft a plan despite efforts to include city-planning staff.

At the hearing last week, Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Jennings refuted Douglas, saying, “We have attempted to have conferences with the commission staff–we have the complete exchange of e-mails between us requesting to be included in the process–but there was a complete and resounding silence and refusal to meet with us.”

And there were other ruffled feathers to be smoothed.

“There has been a new fanaticism and self-righteousness at the Coastal Commission that often ignores the realities and demands unscientific, ridiculous compliance with pat formulas … that add to homeowner frustration, expense and actual taking of private property without compensation,” longtime Malibu environmental activist Jeff Harris told the commission.

There were arguments that the LCP designated too many ESHAs (environmentally sensitive habitat areas), making it impossible to build a new home on vacant land. Others said there were not enough ESHAs in the plan to protect natural resources, such as the Malibu creek and lagoon.

Some called for open Civic Center land to be designated as wetlands, thus protecting it from commercial development.

Others argued that zoning at the Civic Center area should remain “commercial general,” allowing for low-density offices and other businesses. The draft LCP changes the zoning in the Civic Center from commercial general to “no less than 50 acres of visitor-serving commercial uses, including overnight accommodations…” To many speakers that invoked dark images of a hotel and chain restaurants.

Jennings brought up an over-arching concern regarding the process of appealing permits for new construction that some have said will make the Coastal Commission the city’s planning commission. Often neighbors can stop construction of a new home for years by raising issue of property setbacks, slope density, habitat protection and even glare from windows–all things that may require appeals for permits from the commission–in order to keep new construction out of their line of sight.

Jennings cited policies in the LCP that declare, “natural vegetation buffer areas and riparian habitats shall be protected” and that Malibu is “a highly scenic area” whose “visual qualities shall be protected and, where feasible, enhanced.” He argued that this broad language could restrict construction almost anywhere in Malibu.

“You will become the court of last resort for people with a lot of money dragging out the process as long as possible,” he told the commission.

Coastal commissioners, who come from all parts of California, appeared ready to deal on these and other issues.

“We’re not interested in serving as a planning commission for Malibu,” said McCain-Hill.

“I’m assuming the commission is going to be making quite a few changes in the months to come,” said Commissioner Mary Nichols of Sacramento, who, as resources secretary for the state of California, is also an advisor to Gov. Gray Davis.

She quoted a Davis credo in negotiations: “Nobody gets what they want, but everybody gets what they absolutely need.”

The LCP, Nichols said, “needs to honor and respect the needs of Malibu.”

Commission staff at the outset of the hearing made one major concession. It recommended support of a development agreement that would allow ball fields and a recreation center now on state park land at Malibu Bluffs Park to be transferred to adjacent land, owned by Crummer Trust.

The state is turning the playing fields back to a natural habitat. Crummer Trust is offering six acres of bluffs land for recreation in exchange for the right to develop eight residential plots on adjoining acreage.

The commission staff draft LCP designated zoning for the Crummer property as “visitor-serving,” which would have prohibited homes and killed the deal. It now recommends the zoning be designated “residential.”

Wan, who is a Malibu resident, had several criticisms of the staff LCP. She called for more “mixed-use” zoning, such as parks and recreation areas within areas zoned for commercial use.

“We could better specify wetlands, she said. “The definitions are somewhat ambiguous.”

“There are quite a bit of changes I would like to see be more specific,” Wan continued. “We should have some significant changes.”

The next public hearing on the Coastal Commission’s draft LCP will be in January. A final draft is scheduled to be certified by September 2002.

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

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