Op-Ed

The long and complicated fight to preserve paradise in Malibu

Malibu’s most famous unbuilt houses today are those of U2 guitarist the Edge, who has been trying for five years to get the go-ahead to to construct multiple mansions on an untouched hilltop near the city’s eastern border. Just when it looked like a done deal, the Sierra Club filed suit against the California Coastal Commission for not fully assessing the environmental impact of the proposed development.

Long after the Edge’s case is done, such passionate fights about development in Malibu will go on and on. The city has never resolved a central question since its founding: How do you maintain paradise? Is it even possible?

The conflict between preservation and development already claimed one of Southern California’s greatest fortunes. All of Malibu was once owned by Frederick and May Rindge, who arrived in Los Angeles County as newlyweds in 1887 during its first real estate boom. Frederick Rindge was a Harvard-educated confidant of Theodore Roosevelt who came west for his health, and soon owned more businesses than perhaps any other single person in California. In 1892 the couple purchased the 13,000-acre Malibu rancho, a former Spanish land grant, as a country home for their growing family.

Frederick, a deeply religious man, saw evidence of the divine in Malibu’s coastal vistas. He once wrote that in “the creation of this earth paradise, God must have entered deeply into the joy of its making and beauty.” Yet he also saw that this spectacular stretch between the mountains and the Pacific had the potential to be an American Riviera. He sketched out plans for marinas, hotels and a casino along its shore.

He would never have time to act on that impulse, however. He died suddenly in 1905, only 48 years old. May Rindge inherited his fortune, worth $700 million in today’s money plus the land, and devoted the rest of her life to keeping Malibu unmarred by development. She built gates at each end of the ranch and hired armed guards to patrol the mountains on horseback, and once petitioned President Theodore Roosevelt to have all of Malibu declared a national park. She was quick to resort to more extreme measures as well: when she discovered that settlers living in the Santa Monica Mountains built trails across her land to reach the beach, she ordered her ranch foreman to dynamite each one until it was impassable, and rode out on horseback with a revolver slung over her hip to supervise the job.

The press began calling her the Queen of Malibu, and she was soon the most hated woman in L.A. County. Homesteaders invaded the ranch carrying shotguns in hopes of killing her; federal agents blamed her for causing a “bloody feud”; the city of Santa Monica once received a petition with more than 5,000 signatures calling her actions “contrary to all notions of human decency.” During World War I, one member of the Los Angeles City Council member went so far as to claim that her refusal to open Malibu to roads and the public at large was making it easier for the Germans to invade.

The standoff would go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1923 issued a landmark eminent domain ruling that paved the way for the construction of the Pacific Coast Highway. Still, it took 10 years and countless tons of dynamite to carve the PCH into the mountainsides along the coast. (With near-annual rockslides and floods, the stretch of road remains so untamed that in the ’80s a Caltrans’ director of planning admitted he wished PCH had never been built.)

May, desperate to rebuild her wealth after the long legal battle, in 1926 opened up a sliver of the coast for what became known as the Malibu Movie Colony — a cluster of beachside cottages that was the first time Malibu was open for development. The Great Depression wiped out her remaining fortune, and she eventually died penniless in a crumbling West Adams mansion.

May Rindge is now largely forgotten in Malibu. No monuments, streets, or city parks are named for her. Her legacy, however, survives in subtler ways. Like her, everyone who arrives in Malibu tries to close the door behind them, to freeze this 27-mile stretch of coastline as it was when they first saw it.

Fights over how to preserve paradise are now as central to the culture of Malibu as surfers and sunshine. The combatants’ positions aren’t always what’s expected: conservationists are often pushing to open up Malibu to more public use, while billionaires and movie stars unite to try to vote down a Whole Foods for the town’s main shopping district. But residents’ reluctance to invite in the outside world — even to the extent of hiring private security guards and posting fake no-parking signs — is somewhat understandable. Turning pristine land into parking lots is not something that can be simply undone. The line between unfettered public access and a tragedy of the commons is a thin one.

Still, The desire to control even a piece of this paradise can cost a person mightily. A mere half-mile away from the Edge’s empty hilltop, May Rindge set out to build a 50-room castle in 1928. It was to be a symbol of her rule over what she called “the ancient beauty” of Malibu. But the Queen of Malibu ran out of money and it was still unfinished when she died 13 years later.

David K. Randall is a senior reporter at Reuters and the author of “The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise.”

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Is it possible to save paradise? - Since its founding, Malibu has wrestled with the conflict between preservation and development." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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