City grants variance to build road above Sweetwater Mesa

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Builder required to meet extensive conditions.

By Sylvie Belmond/Staff Writer

A split Malibu City Council conditionally granted a variance Monday that would enable builder Brian Sweeney to construct an access road to his property above Sweetwater Mesa Road. But numerous conditions were placed on this approval.

Sweeney wants to build five homes on county land, located northeast of Serra Retreat. The access road would go through city-owned land. Residents are concerned this road could be extended at a later time, allowing traffic to go between Piuma Road and Pacific Coast Highway.

At Monday’s meeting, Councilmember Tom Hasse said of the variance, “We sent him packing to Los Angeles County for the five homes he plans to build. He has to prove he can build the homes.”

But some neighbors and two councilmembers were still concerned, and opposed the variance.

Councilmembers Sharon Barovsky and Ken Kearsley voted against it because they were concerned about the potential ripple effects of such a road.

“We need to get a focused Environmental Impact Report,” said Kearsley, “because it may offer other alternatives for this project.”

“That land is prime open-space land,” he said.

But Mayor Joan House, Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Jennings and Hasse concurred that Sweeney, if he met the stringent conditions placed upon him by the city, was entitled to the variance to build his road.

“Sweeney had the access right,” said Jennings.

But to build the road, Sweeney needed a variance because it required more grading than the city usually allows.

“If there is no other way to build the road, then the city had to grant the variance to allow it,” said Jennings.

The issue the council was trying to decide on Monday what level of examination should be given to the variance before allowing it, noted Jennings in a later interview.

Therefore, a large number of prerequisites must be met before Sweeney can build the road.

The private access road cannot be built until Sweeney proves that his 146-acre property, perched above Sweetwater Mesa Road, can accommodate at least one of the houses he intends to build.

But if Sweeney truly has a buildable lot, and he obtains the necessary building permits from the county, the city cannot prevent him from using that easement, explained Hasse.

“What we didn’t want was a thoroughfare to go all the way to Piuma Road, so deed restrictions were imposed,” he said, addressing the concerns of residents in the area.

In the event the lot is not buildable, Sweeney will have to restore the temporary road back to its natural state, said the council.

As it deed-restricted the property, the city also precluded further subdivisions and conditioned that the road cannot punch through to other properties to the north. But the timeframe for meeting these new requirements is not yet established.

Sweeney agreed to wave his right to grant easement rights to any of the neighboring properties.

“By the time we got to the hearing, it was already established that no other property owners had established easement rights to that property,” said Jennings.

This raised the issue of easement by necessity. The council wanted to be assured that neighbors could not claim easement of necessity because they were landlocked.

Councilmembers asked Sweeney to provide the city with title reports for all the adjacent properties so the city can see that neighbors have access options in other directions, such as Piuma Road.

“That will make the necessity threat go away,” said Jennings.

Don Schmitz, a development consultant and permit processor, who spoke on behalf of Sweeney, said, in a later interview, the city’s conditions were tough.

“This is atypical for the city to restrict what happens outside its jurisdiction,” said Schmitz.

The project was also contested by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, because it says the road would encroach on a wildlife corridor.

In an article last year, the Los Angeles Times indicated that Sweeney is a speculator who purchased 2,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains with the intention of reselling at high profits.

But Sweeney voiced to the council that these were not his intentions.

“I would very much like to move to Sweetwater Mesa Road,” said Sweeney. “I didn’t acquire this property with any partners. That property will not be for sale.”

In the end, staff was directed to come back with a resolution to approve the variance subject to proof that Sweeney had cleared Los Angeles County requirements for geology, environmental health, water supply and other essentials for the construction of a single-family home. Staff was also instructed to approve a temporary road so the above could be done, said Planning Director Barry Hogan.

This variance will allow the applicant to grade and build on a slope in excess of the norm with a retaining wall.

The temporary road application still needs to be processed by the Planning Department.