After years of skirmishing over a rock star's proposal to build a secluded compound on a rugged Malibu ridge, the California Coastal Commission staff recommended Friday that the project move forward — with modifications.
U2 guitarist the Edge, a.k.a. David Evans, has gone to great lengths since 2006 to secure permits to build five homes, including his own, and an access road on Sweetwater Mesa in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The coastal commission staff in February 2011 rejected the Irish musician's plans for construction of the five widely spaced mansions with swimming pools, saying they would scar a steep, undeveloped ridgeline visible from much of the coastline, cause extensive geological disturbance and destroy environmentally sensitive native vegetation.
The staff also contended that Evans was attempting to bypass environmental rules and maximize development by submitting five separate applications, each under a different corporate name.
For the last year, staff members have been quietly negotiating with Evans' extensive team of environmental consultants, attorneys and lobbyists.
The two sides ultimately reached a settlement agreement, posted on the commission's website, calling for Evans to cut the size of the development area, reduce the amount of grading, cluster the houses on a lower plateau and lower the height of some residences. The property owners also agreed to increase the amount of acreage under a conservation easement and shorten an access road and a retaining wall.
"From Day 1, I had told these guys that the one way to get to approval" was to make these changes, said Jack Ainsworth, the commission's senior deputy director. "And here we are back at that same place many years later."
The applicants "worked hard to adhere to all the conditions laid out by the commission," said Fiona Hutton, their spokeswoman. She said the home designs were "dramatically different" — toned down, simplified and "built to fit into the natural contours of hillside."
Environmental groups and residents of canyons and hillsides had lambasted the original proposal, saying it would cause irreparable harm to habitat and views, as well as further erode ever-shrinking open spaces.
Many opponents were stunned when the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which had initially decried the project, abruptly backpedaled in May 2011 and voted to adopt a position of neutrality. The vote came after Evans and his team agreed to pay the conservancy $750,000 in cash so that it could purchase land, including an easement across the properties to extend the Coastal Slope Trail.
In August 2011, the property owners filed suit seeking to set aside the coastal panel's denial of their applications.
About a year later, the musician's team began lobbying for a bill in Sacramento that would have eased the way for development of the properties. Environmentalists cast the bill as a power grab by developers and special interests, including Evans. After sailing through the Assembly, the bill was rejected by a key state Senate panel.
One Malibu critic of the project was surprised to learn Friday that it was still under consideration.
Jefferson "Jay" Wagner, a former Malibu councilman, said property owners in the exclusive Serra Retreat neighborhood of Malibu would be irked if the 151-acre project were approved and Evans and his partners then went on to sell easement rights for access to other lots above and below that could then be developed.
"There's always a lawyer that can break an easement restriction," he said.
Ainsworth declined to speculate about how the full coastal panel would vote when it takes up the project in October.
"It's not a slam dunk by any means," he said. "They have full discretion to approve or deny this settlement."