Who knew what in the Streisand Center case?

Not long after the polls opened this morning, I was standing in line waiting to sign in and get my ballot. I always get a little rush when I vote, a sense that I’m participating in the choices for our future and that my vote counts. I’m disturbed that so many people have opted out of the process and don’t bother to register or vote. That the kids seem to think, on a whole, it’s a meaningless activity because it doesn’t matter who gets elected, that things never change. Normally I would poo poo that philosophy, but now I’m not so sure.

I’m going to tell you a little story about something that happened to us here in Malibu. It’s a story without an ending, not because there isn’t an ending, it’s just that the ending is still hidden. But the game is afoot and I’m on the scent.

It begins a few years ago, so bear with me.

Once upon a time, Malibu’s reigning diva, Barbra Streisand gave her property at the very end of Ramirez Canyon to the state for what she thought was going to be an environmental think tank to be called the Streisand Center. The state accepted it hesitatingly but giving instructions, I’m told, to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which was going to use and operate it, that it couldn’t use state monies to run the place. (The state people were no fools and didn’t want any white elephants).

The conservancy initially hoped for grants to operate the facility, but that never panned out so it turned the center into a banquet facility for weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate events, movie shoots and such. Needless to say, the center’s neighbors in this little box canyon went ballistic. The neighbors went running to the City of Malibu complaining the conservancy was running a commercial facility in the middle of a residential canyon without permits and the city should stop it. When the city told the conservancy to stop, the conservancy essentially told the city to stick it, that it was a state agency and didn’t need a city permit. The city then complained to the California Coastal Commission that the conservancy was operating without a coastal permit, and with much reluctance, and also some litigation, the Coastal Commission finally told the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to come in and get a permit, which it did. After a long and contentious hearing, the Coastal Commission completely rolled over and gave Executive Director Joe Edminston and the conservancy everything they wanted, plus something extra, and then chided the Ramirez neighbors for being a bunch of elitist white people.

But the conservancy’s plans to make mucho dollars from the facility were thwarted because a court ordered everything stayed until the California Court of Appeals got to hear the case. Well, much to everyone’s surprise in a decision rendered on June 13 of this year, the Court of Appeals came down squarely on the side of the city and said, yes this was a commercial use and the conservancy did have to get a city permit. Needless to say, Edminston and the conservancy were very unhappy.


This is where the story gets murky.

About the same time, a relatively innocuous bill, entitled AB 2891, authored by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D) of West Hollywood, who is also a member of the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, was making its way through the legislative process. The bill passed through the Assembly, including the committee of 41st District (which includes Malibu) Assemblymember Fran Pavley. But when it cleared her committee and the Assembly, it was still innocuous and noncontroversial. It had nothing to do with the Streisand Center in Ramirez Canyon.

But somewhere in the Senate something happened. Some language was added to the bill, which was not innocuous because it pretty much nullified the city’s court victory and effectively consigned to history the case of the City of Malibu vs. Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th1379, 119 Cal.Rptr.2d 777 (that’s for the lawyers who want to look it up.)

That the city didn’t know anything about the new legislation was not surprising. I’ve read the legislation and the legislative history. I’ve looked at the various committee consultants’ analysis. I’ve checked what the legislative council and analyst had to say, and nowhere does it say that part of this bill was intended to overrule the case of Malibu vs. the Conservancy. In fact, someone went to great pains to disguise its real purpose.

I spoke to Assemblymember Pavley who told me she was unaware of the change because when she last saw the bill it had just left the Assembly, and it was still clean and innocuous. I haven’t yet had a chance to follow-up with the bill’s author, Koretz, Sen. Sheila Kuehl, or any of the consultants and legislative people who touched the bill, but there are certain things I do know.

I know the amendment to this bill, which were major amendments, were done in such a way it left a minimum of fingerprints. In other words, there is deniability written all over this.

I know Koretz knew about the change because the amendment to the bill was an author’s amendment, and he was the author. And unless he was tricked, he had to know the significance of the amendment.

I know that Edminston, the executive director of the Coastal Conservancy, knew because this was his action from the get go.

What I don’t know is whether the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy knew, and approved, or whether it was all Edminston’s doing.

I don’t know who else knew, and why they didn’t at least warn us so the city would have an opportunity to go to Sacramento to say our piece.

And, most of all, I’m not sure who our friends are anymore, but I certainly intend to try and find out.

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

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