Malibu City Council grants Malibu Township Council’s appeal of the Malibu Inn Motel approval 

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Malibu Inn Motel. Photo by Samantha Bravo/TMT.

Developer can possibly resubmit a modified application 

By Barbara Burke

Special to The Malibu Times 

“This project NEVER should have made it to the Planning Commission, let alone to the City Council,” said Jo Drummond, Malibu Township Council president. 

Drummond made the comment after the Malibu City Council met on May 13 and granted the MTC’s appeal seeking review of the Malibu Planning Commission’s approval of an application to build a proposed two-story Malibu Inn Motel. The name of the proposed project is Surfrider Plaza. The council voted to approve MTC’s appeal by a 4-1 vote, with Councilmember Paul Grisanti dissenting. 

The council’s approval of MTC’s appeal has the effect of denying the project, which could be brought back for approval if the developer makes changes that were identified at the council meeting.

“This speaks to the heart of the people of Malibu.” Drummond stated after MTC prevailed. “We did not come here for a concrete wall of hotels. We came for the pelicans, the surf, the sandpipers, the native bush sunflowers on the bluffs, and everything beautiful here.” 

The project’s procedural and substantive history

In a very lengthy meeting involving testimony in opposition to the project by approximately 40 upset citizens in opposition to the project, the City Council granted MTC’s comprehensive appeal from the Planning Commission’s approval of the proposed project, which was to be located at 22959 Pacific Coast Highway. The project would have been situated on the landside northeast of the Pier, niched between Aviator Nation Dreamland and the Chabad, its early childhood education center, and the rabbi’s residence. Currently, the parcel is a parking lot. The council directed staff to draft a resolution granting the appeal and denying the project application. 

The proposed project would have involved construction of a new 7,693-square-foot, 20-room motel above a new subterranean garage. The project included a surface parking lot, resulting in a total of 47 parking spaces, a rooftop terrace with a swimming pool, hot tub and pool bar area, grading, retaining walls, landscaping, and a new onsite wastewater treatment system. The applicant also sought authorization for Richard Mollica, the City of Malibu’s Planning Director, to submit a letter of public convenience or necessity for the sale of alcohol. 

Malibu-based Burdge and Associates, Inc. is the project director. The property is owned by Surfrider Plaza, LLC, a Beverly Hills-based entity that is owned by applicant Alexander Hakim. Hakim originally filed a permit request for the project on June 11, 2018. 

The Planning Commission approved the project on May 31, 2023. The MTC appealed to the council on July 27, 2023, asserting more than 20 substantive challenges to the commission’s project approval. On March 15, the City Council deferred consideration of the appeal, which had been scheduled to March 25. 

Unfortunately, Mollica was unable to attend the May 13 council session due to a long-planned prior engagement.

“MTC moved to continue the first hearing, which would have been in March,” Doug Burdge said. “Had we known that the planning director could not attend the May 13 council meeting, we would have asked for another continuance so that Mr. Mollica could attend. The councilmembers seemed surprised that he was unavailable to attend the May 13 council meeting.”

Any possible next steps available to the applicants to redesign the project are unclear

Burdge described the subject project as “basically like the Surfrider Hotel, except this project has a pool.” Notably, Burdge was also the architect for Surfrider Hotel.

“We have listened to all of MTC’s objections, and we intend to meet with Mr. Mollica as soon as possible,” Burdge said. “However, until we meet with the planning director, we do not know what our next steps will be regarding whether and how we might modify the application and possibly try to move forward on this project.”

Burdge stated that he will tell The Malibu Times about any next steps after his team meets with the planning director.

Citizen advocates’ positions concerning the project’s status 

Trevor Neilson, Malibu resident and environmental advocate, declared that Malibu officials, including Grisanti, who is a real estate agent, assistant city planner Adrian Fernandez, and Mollica may have “colluded to manipulate city codes with regard to Surfrider Plaza.”

Discussing the project after the council voted, Drummond first addressed the role of MTC in local policymaking.

“MTC serves as a civic monitor, analyzing governmental decisions that harm the environment, public safety, or Malibu’s natural beauty and charm,” Drummond explained. “MTC’s involvement on each issue has ranged from hiring experts to conduct research, to conducting community education, engagement, and publicity programs. We appreciate the ongoing support of our residents.”

Addressing specifics, Drummond asserted that the project is out of alignment with applicable city and building codes because there were inadequate environmental impact assessments and the project failed to address lost-cost accommodation requirements. 

Neilson chatted with The Malibu Times about many citizens’ opposition to the project, saying, “It’s a controversial project and the Planning Commission erred in approving several variances, including construction on steep slopes, parking within the front yard setback, extensive grading involving 12,648 cubic yards of soil, with 11,860 cubic yards to be exported, building height that exceeds standard restrictions, and a proposed retaining wall projected to reach 52.5 feet, which far exceeds permissible limits.”

Critics of the project also maintain that it conflicts with the goals of Malibu’s Mission Statement which emphasizes environmental preservation and sustainable development. 

Further, they assert, the project would disrupt coastal bluffs and community character. 

“The Malibu Inn Motel exemplified everything wrong in the Planning Department, which has gone unchecked for years,” Drummond said. “An investigation must be conducted to understand how the City accepted this proposal when it was delinquent on many levels.”

Drummond also said, “Malibu residents expect a simple thing — to honor and respect the mission, vision, and General Plan of the City of Malibu. Visitor-serving recreational opportunities must remain subordinate to our natural, cultural, and rural settings and resources.”

The events of the City Council meeting deliberating whether to approve of MTC’s appeal were heated and lengthy. Those testifying in opposition to the Malibu Inn opposed many elements of the proposed project.

Notwithstanding whether one agrees with MTC’s appeal, or with the Planning Commission’s ruling approving the proposed project, the exchange between councilmembers, city staff, and many vociferously objecting residents exemplified how citizen advocacy can influence the outcome of a City Council meeting.  

Ultimately, whether or not there is a hotel built on the parcel at issue, it is worth noting that the democratic principle of recognizing and respecting the critical role of citizen engagement in the local decision-making process was acknowledged by the City Council. 

Thus, the meritorious goal of ensuring that Malibu’s local government must be transparent, accountable, and effective was in force at the council meeting, as it should be.