The Edge gets closer to approval of Malibu mansion complex

David Evans beat back opposition from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy with a $750,000 gift

David Evans, also known as U2 guitarist the Edge, has been strumming the same chord for eight years. And yes, it's gotten pretty tiresome.

The man who won't take no for an answer has enlisted lobbyists, lawyers and consultants in his fight to win approval for a massive development atop a majestic Malibu ridge. Neither initial rejection by the California Coastal Commission nor fierce opposition from preservationists and would-be neighbors have dissuaded him.

At one point, he beat back opposition from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy with a $750,000 gift. And when the Coastal Commission originally rejected his plan, his team responded with a lawsuit.

And you know what?

Evans strikes me as the kind of guy who probably believed all along that money and persistence — if not arrogance and connections — would eventually win the day.

And sure enough, he prevailed last month in a decision that sent critics into apoplectic fits, when the staff of the California Coastal Commission endorsed a somewhat scaled down version of the five-mansion compound he's proposed for Sweetwater Mesa.

Jack Ainsworth, the commission's senior deputy director, told me he would rather not see any development at all on that ridge. But property owners have a right to build in that area, so the staff negotiated the best deal that it could, requiring houses to be clustered on a lower, less visible plateau than was originally planned, with less ecological disturbance.

Now comes the vote by the Coastal Commission, scheduled for Wednesday in Newport Beach. Handicappers are predicting victory for Evans, even as foes scramble to get the commissioners to postpone a decision. The complaints have been flying in from the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay, the National Park Service, the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains and others.

They argue that even in its modified and less intrusive form, the development would mar pristine acreage, destroy plant and animal habitat, constitute a fire hazard, encourage more development and violate the spirit and letter of a Coastal Act put in place, in part, to save rapidly disappearing open spaces from further encroachment.

"As the State Senator who represents almost the entirety of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the subject project area, I write in opposition," state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) said Tuesday in a letter to the commission asking for a postponement.

Pavley said the sprawling homes would require 40,000 cubic yards of grading, result in "potentially disastrous consequences" for wildlife and have an unprecedented "jarring visual impact" on "one of the most beautiful ridgelines along the Malibu coastline."

But the recommended approval of the project wasn't the only thing that had foes screaming. In just two days, on Friday, the Coastal Commission is scheduled to consider a new set of planning guidelines that have been in the works for more than a decade and have been approved by Los Angeles County supervisors. The Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Program would give primary approval of coastal development proposals to the county rather than to the state.

Critics and cynics alike were left wondering how the Edge had the magnificent luck to get his project on the agenda just ahead of a possible transfer of authority to the county, which might be less inclined to bargain with Evans.

Former Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner said the scheduling mystery was like something out of "Chinatown," and he was planning to attend Wednesday's meeting in Newport Beach and "raise hell." Heal the Bay, meanwhile, asked for postponement of a decision on Malibu until after the county guidelines come up for certification Friday.

"These are our Santa Monica Mountains and we want to regulate them," said Gina Natoli, a Los Angeles County planner who has worked on the county LCP, as it's called, for 14 years. The Coastal Act that has governed development can be "fuzzy," said Natoli, which was a nice way of putting it.

If I can be more blunt, rulings on project applications by the Coastal Commission can be inconsistent and subject to political pressures and the outsized influence of developers.

But would it be any better with the county? "You don't get to make it up with us," Natoli added. "It's in black and white, and everybody knows what they're getting."

Ainsworth, the Coastal Commission's senior deputy director, said that as he reads it, it doesn't matter when the planning guidelines come before the commission. Because the application for Evans' project was filed years ago with the Coastal Commission, the state would have retained authority. Also, he said, the staff's negotiated settlement with the Edge's crew took the county's new guidelines into consideration anyway.

Ainsworth did concede, however, that one house in the project would be higher than allowed in the pending county guidelines, and that two of the homes would have a greater impact on habitat than the new guidelines would allow.

Former Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan of Malibu thinks that the commission is shirking its responsibility to protect the coastline.

"First of all, [Evans and his team] have not mitigated anything. They have reduced some of the impacts, that's all." She blasted the staff for failing to do a more thorough study of the geological, environmental and other impacts, saying that the project is still too big and that the site is "totally inappropriate and flies in the face of the prohibitions within the Coastal Act."

One can only hope that someone on the Coastal Commission steps up today and says wait a minute, let's hold off at least long enough to consider certifying the county's new guidelines first, and let's review whether the county should have the legal authority to preserve a natural wonder for one and all, on its own terms.

But maybe it's silly of me to think that commissioners would surrender any authority. Just as silly as thinking that the Edge might one day gaze up at that unspoiled mountain, and in a moment of humility, see it as something other than the foundation of his future castle.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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