Coastal Commission reduces beach lot width requirement


The decision, involving homes to be built by Malibu Bay Co., also ignores a commission biologist’s recommendation for a large buffer zone to protect an ESHA zone, which includes the home of the Gobose Dune beetle.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

At its meeting last Wednesday in Santa Rosa, the California Coastal Commission voted 10-1 to approve the amendment to the city’s LCP that allows the Malibu Bay Co. to build the four homes on property located just east of Broad Beach. The previous rule would have allowed the company to build two homes.

The Malibu Bay property, which is the last remaining vacant residential-zoned land in the Broad Beach area, is approximately 200 feet wide. Because the city’s LCP requires beachfront lots to be a minimum of 80 feet wide, only two homes could have been built on the site. Malibu Bay requested an LCP amendment to reduce the minimum width to 45 feet to go along with the city’s 2007 approval for a subdivision of the property into four parcels.

The property is also located next to a dune, which coastal staff had declared an environmentally sensitive habitat area, or ESHA, because it contains native vegetation and also is the home of the Gobose Dune beetle. The commission’s biologist, Joanna Engel, recommended a 25-foot buffer between the dune and the four future homes. But the official coastal staff recommendation, and the commission vote, called for a five-foot buffer. The justification for this was that most of the other properties on Broad Beach have no buffer at all.

“We did not think it was fair to require a 25-foot setback here when all other properties are either up against the line [or not far from it],” said Coastal Commission Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth at the meeting. “That’s a judgment call, and we thought long and hard about it.”

Coastal staff gave a similar justification for recommending the reduced minimum lot width. According to the city’s research, the average beachfront width in Malibu (where most of the homes were built before the city was founded and before the LCP was drafted) is 50 feet. The average size is 48 feet on Broad Beach.

Not everyone is happy with the decision. Dean Ross, who owns a property next to the Malibu Bay site, said the extra homes would create greater risks in the area, including more traffic and more homes that could catch on fire.

“Does it make sense to expose twice the number of families to a tighter configuration of risk,” he asked. “The public interest and the coastal environment are of paramount concern. [The concern is] not equitable consideration to enhance developer wealth.”

Ross’ attorney, John Bowman, said coastal staff had not properly considered how many other property owners in Malibu could use this LCP amendment to build more homes than they previously could. The city said the amount of properties this would affect is three. Bowman said it is at least 13. Coastal staff said Bowan’s estimation did not take into consideration that there are other restrictions on the properties he included on his list that would prevent the additional home construction.

Mark Massara of the Sierra Club envisioned a possibility of all coastal homes in Malibu needing to be rebuilt if a tsunami were ever to hit the city.

“We’re told it’s not if [a tsunami will hit Malibu], it’s when,” Massara said. “And what if all the coast-side development of Malibu is wiped out and we start over? What is the number of new houses that are going to be permitted by this change if that were to occur? Why didn’t the city do an EIR [environmental impact report] on this? If you don’t have that information, how could you make a determination on this today?”

The lone commissioner to vote against the amendment was Mary Shallenberger. She said she did not agree with going against the commission biologist’s recommendation on the setback just because other homes in the area do not have one. She said she feared this set a precedent for a “very dangerous concept.”

“In the future when there’s the last lot left in any local government jurisdiction, then we [will] find ourselves not being able to follow the best science, but having to follow all the permits that have been granted before it,” Shallenberger said.

As part of the amendment, Malibu Bay has agreed to remove non-native vegetation and plant native vegetation on the dune as part of a restoration project. Also, Malibu Bay would pay for the cost of any lawsuit the amendment’s approval might trigger. Bowman did not return a phone call this week about whether his client planned to file suit.

This property became known to Malibu residents during the 2003 Malibu Bay Co. Development Agreement proposal and election. That proposal, which involved several of the company’s properties throughout the city, called for the development of five homes on the site. The development agreement was approved by the City Council, but rejected by Malibu voters.

Also at the meeting on Wednesday, the commission approved the change of a zoning designation for a five-acre property on Paseo Canyon Road from open space to residential. According to the commission report, the privately owned property had been incorrectly designated when the LCP was written due to an error by the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office that classified the site as publicly owned. That error was likely due to confusion created when then-owner Pepperdine University in 1990 split the site in two, deed-restricting half of it to the National Park Service. The non-deeded, restricted portion, which is the property in question, was later sold to Kurt Bachman.

The property’s new designation of single-family, low-density means one home could be built per half-acre. Approximately 10 homes could be built on the land.