Malibu City Council votes for lawsuit against Coastal Commission head

California Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas

California Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas says the city attorney is doing “technical hair splitting” with her interpretation of the law. He says there is no basis for a lawsuit.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

The City Council at its meeting Monday night unanimously voted to file a lawsuit against California Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas because of his support for an application for overnight camping and other parks enhancements by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and its sister organization the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. The suit was approved during the closed session portion of the meeting and the decision was announced at the beginning of the public session.

Douglas’ support for the application did not finalize the conservancy’s request, but it made it eligible for review by the Coastal Commission voting body.

The suit will be filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. City Attorney Christi Hogin said Douglas would be served papers this week. Although the suit is technically against Douglas because he made the decision on the application, it will be treated as a suit against the state and be defended by the Attorney General’s Office.

The conservancy’s application was made earlier this year in response to the city’s request to the Coastal Commission for a Local Coastal Program amendment to ban overnight camping on Malibu public land. The conservancy’s request was done through a rarely used procedure called an LCP Amendment Override. Hogin has said the conservancy’s request does not qualify for this procedure for various reasons. Douglas concluded otherwise.

Douglas said in an interview Tuesday morning the city has no basis for a lawsuit.

“I think it is squandering public resources and I wonder if they would spend this money if it were their own rather than the taxpayers’,” Douglas said. “It is going to cost the taxpayers a considerable amount of money.”

To qualify for the override procedure, the California Code of Regulations states the application must be for a public works project or energy facility that meets “public needs of an area greater than” the local jurisdiction and the request must not have been anticipated by the applicant when the jurisdiction’s LCP was certified by the Coastal Commission.

Hogin wrote in a report for Monday’s council meeting that the conservancy’s proposal does not qualify for the procedure because it is not a specific public works project or energy facility, but rather a long-range public works plan. Also, she wrote, overnight camping was anticipated when the Malibu LCP was certified.

Douglas said on Tuesday Hogin was doing “technical hair splitting.”

“That provision [exists] exactly for that situation,” Douglas said. “We expected there would be occasions when a local government would be hostile to a project having a broader public interest than what the neighbors or the parochial concerns would support.”

The Coastal Commission voting body is expected to consider the rival applications from the city and conservancy sometime early next year. Douglas does not support the city’s application. He does not get to vote on it, but his opinion is highly influential.

April Verbanac, a consultant for the conservancy’s project, was the lone representative for the state agency at Monday’s council meeting. She did not speak during the meeting.

As part of the override procedure, the council had the option to support the conservancy’s application and include it in a revised version of the city’s LCP amendment request. During the public portion of Monday’s meeting, the council voted unanimously to reject this option.

Look for more on this story in this week’s print edition of The Times and on this Web site.