Malibuite says open-space groups are all ‘hot air’


A longtime Malibu resident is severely disappointed when he tries to engage help from a local nonprofit group to

preserve open space.

By Tracy Marcynzsyn/Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu is often the battleground between environmentalists and developers fighting over land-between keeping it as open space or doing whatever they want with it. Often, a local nonprofit group will step in when it comes to preserving valuable, sensitive open space, and come up with funds to purchase land from a developer.

However, a longtime Malibu resident and nature lover, who says he is behind the “grass roots” slow growth/no growth movement in Malibu, has had a disappointing experience with one such group, and now has come to believe that these organizations are all “hot air.”

Planning to protect a piece of land from development, Jefferson Wagner, owner of Zuma Jay surf shop, purchased property that today he may be forced to sell and develop-the very thing he was hoping to avoid.

Wagner wanted to preserve open space near the waterfall at Escondido Creek. When the land came up for sale, he contacted the Mountains Restoration Trust (MRT), a nonprofit organization that acquires property for open space.

After walking the land with MRT’s president, Steve Harris, Wagner decided to purchase the 10 lots above Escondido Creek.

“The main goal is to preserve the last undisturbed piece of creek above the falls,” Wagner said. “The animals cross from one area to another. There are gray squirrels and bobcats, and raccoons.”

David Myer, a lawyer and neighbor of Wagner’s, was in attendance at a meeting between Wagner and Harris.

“Steve Harris from MRT told him [Wagner] he would be reimbursed if he purchased the land and dedicated it to open space,” Myer said.

According to Harris, the MRT told Wagner the property should qualify for a Transferable Development Credit (TDC), in which an owner of coastal property could buy land in the mountains to conserve as open space in exchange for subdividing their coastal land.

Based on what he believed to be a verbal agreement between himself and Harris, Wagner spent $153,000 to acquire the approximately 2 acres in Latigo Canyon, taking a second mortgage on his home in order to do so.

While Wagner expected to receive about $60,000 from the MRT, two-and-a-half years later he has not received any funding for the property, and is struggling to hold onto the lots and save them from development.

With an option to build on three of the lots, Wagner said he has received several “substantial offers” on the land.

“It’s a developer’s dream,” Wagner said. “I’m just trying to do the right thing. I wasn’t trying to make money, I want to give it back to the environment.”

With houses on both sides of the lots, Wagner must clear weeds and pay the property taxes. Without the expected funding from the state or other open-space organizations, Wagner may be forced to sell the property, risking development, something he’d like to avoid.

Harris, in response to Wagner’s situation, said, “We thought it might qualify for a TDC because it was in an ESHA (environmentally sensitive habitat area). However, the criteria for the TDC, set forth by the Coastal Commission, had changed.”

Harris said he informed Wagner that the property would only qualify for one-third of a TDC. Harris also told Wagner that the organization would “try to find additional funding” for Wagner’s property. “But it didn’t materialize,” Harris said.

“We [the MRT] are a charity. We’re not a government organization. We don’t have oodles of money,” Harris explained.

Founded in 1981, the MRT holds some 2,000 acres of conservation easements in the Santa Monica Mountains. In addition to acquiring land for open space, the MRT also works on restoration projects and education, and assists government agencies.

“You can’t trust them,” Myers said, referring to the MRT. “I think it’s wrong for someone to say, ‘you spend your money and we’ll reimburse you.’ ” Wagner said he has been unsuccessful in securing assistance from other environmental organizations.

“I have been told that those high-on-the pyramid ‘enviro’ types act like gods,” writes Wagner in a letter to The Malibu Times. ” I’m beginning to realize they are all hot air and would never spend any second mortgage on what they believe in.

“We said we would try to assist them, but there is a huge deficit in the state,” Harris said, even now, the MRT “would be more than happy to assist him in trying to deed restrict the property and qualify the lots for a TDC.”