The Beauty of Malibu is undeniable
The crowd laughed. Scattered "Hi Don"s and "I told you so!"s echoed through the crowd. They were with him, one hundred percent.
"Why am I here, when life is good for me? Because the Coastal Commission has gone regulation crazy and now threatens my lifestyle more than developers threaten me!"
So what is the Coastal Commission, exactly? And what have they done to Don to make him so upset?
The Commission is a very strange creature. In 1972, Propostion 20 established its immediate ancestor as an advisory board that would create non-binding plans that included a greater respect for the ecology of the coast. These plans would be hashed out with local government and enforced at their discretion.
In 1976, the legislature created the new Coastal Commission. This one would do most of its work by enforcing Local Coastal Plans, or LCPs. The LCPs would be drawn up by local cities and sent out to the Coastal Commission, which would then approve it. Once approved, the City and Coastal Commission would work together to enforce the plan.
This system actually worked in many cities. I was informed by a local realtor that in Newport Beach, you could tear down a house and rebuild it, no problem, even if it was right on the ocean. In Palos Verdes Estates, they have an Art Jury which takes care of that region's magnificent aesthetics and the Coastal Commision again is not highly involved.
But Malibu is different, and part of it is their fault. The City of Malibu was incredibly fractitious from the start, and this lack of unity created problems. For five years, the City labored on a LCP; for five years, it created nothing acceptable to the Coastal Commission mandarins.
Malibu is also unusual in that it has a great deal of property which would fall under the purview of the Commission even with a LCP; even with the plans, the Coastal Commission holds hearings on all development on top of a bluff immediately abutting the ocean, and all property between the beach and the closest street to the water. Since Malibu is a long, narrow strip that abuts against the ocean on one side and high cliffs on the other, this covers an extremely high percentage of Malibu's real estate, and ensures that the Coastal Commission would dominate Malibu development even if everything had gone well.
In the end, the Coastal Commission and its allies pushed through legislation that gave it the power to produce a LCP -- and impose it on residents by fiat.
So what has the Coastal Commission wrought, and why does Malibu hate the LCP so much?
ESHA Photo Essay
With the new LCP, about 70% of Malibu's land has been declared an ESHA. The idea is that the environment of Malibu is best seen as a whole, not a distinct grouping of properties. Animals roam freely throughout the environment, and so if you want to preserve the species, you have to preserve the environment. See my exclusive photos of an ESHA in in its natural state.
In their official pronouncements, the people who oppose the proposed LCP claim that nearly all of Malibu is designated ESHA in the new plan. This is not technically true; only about 70% is, and much of that is parkland that's already immune to development. However, in practice, there seems to be little difference between ESHA and land adjoning ESHA - and virtually all land in Malibu falls into one of those two categories.
When you make a development proposal to the Coastal Commission, your lot is essentially on trial. If it's in an official ESHA, you cannot build, at least in theory, unless you can prove that your particular parcel was mislabelled. If it's not in an official ESHA, the burden of proof is on you to assure them that it was not, and has not been an ESHA that sprung up without them noticing it. And if it's even close to an ESHA, well, there are a ton of restrictions to what you can do on your land; in practice, they appear to be nearly as strict as if you land had been ESHA in the first place.
Now, you note that I said "at least in theory". What this means is that they run straight into the "takings" clause of the Constitution. This highly annoying provision (from their point of view) says, in effect, that you cannot deprive someone use of his property unless you pay for it. The Coastal Commission doesn't have the budget to do that, so in order to be legal, they have to grudgingly allow, with maximum possible delay, the "minimum economic use" for the property. Effectively, this means that ESHA and non-ESHA lands are probably not that far apart in terms of what can realistically be done on them.
But it doesn't stop with more hurdles to new development; if it did, the odds are pretty good that most Malibu residents wouldn't care. The problem is the severe downzoning that occurs when you're in an ESHA or near one, and the rules are applied to existing development as soon as a permit is requested for essential repairs or remodeling.
So what are these new requirements? If you are within land impacted by ESHA (either ESHA or land adjoining an ESHA), your house cannot be bigger than 1/4 of the lot size, or 10,000 square feet, whichever is smaller. So if you have a 10,000 square foot lot, the largest house you can put on it is 2,500 square feet. Given the existance of 3,000 and 4,000 square foot houses on lot the same size or smaller, you can see this is a severe restriction.
This does not mean that people have to start tearing down their homes right away. But it does mean that if they need to perform any action that requires a Coastal Permit - and most actions do, including simple additions or remodels - they need to make the homes conform to the new zoning.
So if you have a 2,500 square foot house on a 10,000 square foot house, you are no longer allowed to build any kind of addition. To cite a common case, let's say you have a 2,500 square foot house with a 500 square foot guesthouse. You need to repair an ageing roof. You must tear down the guesthouse to make your property conform to present zoning requirements before you can get a permit to fix your roof.
There are also greater aspects of this. If you want to sell your 3,000 square foot house on the 10,000 square foot lot, you have to tell your future buyer that he may not always be entitled to a house of that size, or a guesthouse he might be relying on for income. The guesthouse may have to go as soon as major repairs or remodeling is needed on the original structure(1). Don, who we met at the beginning of this report, says it best:
"Lots of my friends live in Malibu and the Coastal Zone. NOT ONE is in complete compliance with these new regulations. These policies will destroy the very resources the Act was designed to protect."
It's important to remember that one specific area of Malibu was not designated as an ESHA. By an odd coincidence, this is where one of the Coastal Commissioners live. It's pretty obvious to see that they don't want to live under their own rules -- and now you know why.
Again, people who have spent thousands of dollars beautifying their property get the shaft, since when their structure needs to be changed or rebuilt, the gardens will have to go.
I have seen many lovely gardens in Malibu, all of which greatly enhance the experience of visiting the city. If the Coastal Commission succeeds in their vindictive policies, it will all go, and parts of Malibu that were beautiful will now look drab and boring.
The issue is that the Coastal Commission prohibits brush clearance more than 200' away from your property. The insurance companies require clearance to at least 300' away.
If you could have 300' clearance, the typical Malibu home can be insured for about $1,000 a year. With 200' clearance, only a special government program will insure your house at all, and that program will cost $2,000 for fire risk alone.
Just one of the hurdles: Do you have a legal lot? It was probably created decades ago, and it may have not conformed to the laws of the time. If it didn't, you will have to enter an application to get the existing subdivision approved before building. "That application will be rejected," he said. So before you buy that nice plot of land with a great view, better do your homework, even including tracing decades of mouldy title records. Otherwise, you may find you have an unbuildable lot.
I asked him if he at least appreciated the additional business this would give his firm. He was surprisingly blunt: "No". This work may be lucerative, but dealing with this form of bureaucracy not at all satisfying. He'd rather be doing more interesting stuff, such as planning subdivisions and the like. Unfortunately, the new rules are so stiff new subdivisions are unlikely to be approved. So what he gains on one side, he loses on the other - and the work he gains is not at all satisfying compared to what he loses.
For example, you now have to hire an economist to demonstrate that the proposed use is the minimum use possible without involving takings. You have to hire a biologist to do a detailed survey of the life on your property. And that's just the beginning.
None of this, of course, guarantees that the Coastal Commission will accept your application.
Once you get your cherished building permit (hang it on your mantlepiece as a conversation piece), grading and site alterations cannot be done during the "rainy season", which runs from November to March. This outright prohibition on many types of work is called "outrageous" by the contractor's group. The alleged reason for the rules is restrictions against runoff containing potentially toxic materials from the construction site. However, this has been handled just fine in rainy states such as Oregon and Washington, where the rainy season is, well, genuinely rainy.
(The rainy season in Malibu consists of only a few days of rain within those five months).
Needless to say, this rule alone increases construction costs dramatically, since the work has to be done faster, and therefore more expensively.
Turns out that's not quite right. The truth is that it will make all homes worth less, because virtually all homes do not conform to the existing zoning. Those that do are often sold as teardowns, and their proud new owners tend to want to expand them significantly. So in the end, all homes are worth less, because you can do less to them.
In the end, everyone needs to repair their roofs, or install a new kitchen, or add a bathroom, or something. And if you need to do those things, you may be stymied by the Coastal Commission -- and you may have to tear down your guest house, stables, and other "non-conforming uses".
It's enough to drive buyers far, far away. People who wanted to escape the city will think twice when confronted with these rules.
Although the legal language is a bit complex, the LCP is clearly gunning for the local equine. Basically, the problem is that horses are allegedly responsible for e.coli bacteria which has been detected in local streams. The fact that e.coli is a product of flesh-eating creatures, and horses are vegetarians seems not to bother the Coastal folks one whit.
One regulator said, with a straight face, that the average horse weighted 2,000 pounds and generated 50 pounds of manure a day. I fear I am as knowledgeable about horses as the next urban guy, so I took that without thinking. The gales of laughter erupting from the audience showed that the figures were clearly bogus.
Even a casual glance at my ESHA pictures shows that life can creep back and survive in even the most unlikely places. The Coastal Commission acts as though life is something delicate that needs to be carefully nurtured and preserved; the facts are that life would not have lasted for millions of years on this hostile planet if it didn't have a resiliant toughness behind it. And so studies have proved.
An excellent example of this, which I found through my own research, is the whole question of the environmentally sensitive habitat. Much of Malibu was declared an ESHA because of the theory that if you destroy a portion of a creature's habitat, the species becomes endangered. This turns out not to be true; animals are not that dumb. When they encounter dangerous conditions in one part of their habitat, they simply move on to another. Even plant spores spread easily, blown by the wind from place to place. Survival isn't as hard as we think.
What kind of evidence do I have to support this contention? Plenty. According to The Skeptical Environmentalist(2):
On the other hand, Brazil's Atlantic rainforest had been almost entirely cleared in the nineteenth century, with only 12 percent extremely fragmented forest left. According to Wilson's rule of thumb, one ought to expect half of all the species to become extinct. However, when members of the Brazilian Society of Zoology analyzed all 171 knonw Atlantic forest animals, the group "could not find a single known animal species which could be properly delared as extinct, in spite of the massive reduction of area and reduction of their habitat..." (Page 255)This would seem to be a study well worth bringing to the Coastal Commission's attention, and I'm sure there are more..
It seems clear that the Coastal Commission is a power-hungry agency who will leap on any ideas, however dubious, to support their power grabs. After all, everyone "knows" development is bad for the environment.
But is it? Does a guesthouse, or even a hundred guesthouses scattered around many acres, really make a difference of any significance? I doubt it.
One of the biggest areas of contention is the ballfields, which are located on a stunning bluffside in the heart of Malibu. The Coastal Commission wants to turn it into an enormous natural park. The City likes it as it is. The problem is that it was originally leased to the city temporarily for the ballfields; now the Coastal folks want it back.
The site is about half trails and half ballfields; since the trails are barely used and the ballfields are heavily used, it seems like a reasonable compromise. But the ballfields are used by locals, and the trails are, at least in theory, available to the general public. So the Coastal Commisison says the ballfields must go, even though it will cost the city millions of dollars it doesn't have to replace them.
Virtually every line of the Local Coastal Plan implies a certain contempt for residents; the interests of visitors to Malibu are consistently put on a high plateau above the people who live there. It's the very opposite of local control.
Even as a non-resident, this strikes me as a travesty. If Malibu cannot handle the volume of visitors it has now, surely it is irresponsible from an environmental point of view to make it more attractive so more people come?
But in this meeting, I saw nice rich people, who obviously worked hard for what they got, and cared deeply about the area, the environment and its special character. These weren't fat cats; they were people I'd enjoy having as my neighbors. You probably aspire to some form of success yourself, even if you're not that way right now. And no matter what you think about the kind of money that's in Malibu today, you should know that what's being done to them is wrong.
Finally, and sadly, what's done to the rich inevitably filters down. The first Income Tax was sold to the public as being exclusively a way to soak the rich; now it soaks everyone. Just because you're not rich, don't think you're not vunerable.
THUNDEROUS applause erupted in the room. If he had given away "Get out of Coastal Commission Free" cards, he could hardly have been more warmly received.
Malibub is a pretty liberal city, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if Simon received a very strong showing from Malibu voters. They're tired of being abused, and they know Grey Davis is one of the chief abusers.
The only reference to Davis in the meeting was a note that letters can help, and a crack about him talking to an agricultural group about his (entirely non-existant) agricultural achievements.
This is definitely not a pro-Davis crowd.
But now the inevitable in statewide politics seems to have happened: The Coastal Commission is now more responsive to statewide interests (such as tourists wanting to see the beach, or boaters wanting a new launch ramp) than the local situation. As a result, they may yet take paradise and pave it into a beach parking lot, for public access.
(2) From Lomborg, Bjorn The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cambridge University Press, 2001