Michael Fischer, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, skipped his son's high school graduation last week, an event he hated to miss. But the ceremony fell on the same day as a Coastal Commission meeting that promised to be anything but ordinary.
After more than two years of public hearings and backstage negotiations, Fischer was confident that his staff and Los Angeles County planners had reconciled their strikingly different visions of the future of Malibu--an environmentally sensitive region plagued by fire, flood and falling rock that also contains beaches and mountain parks attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually from all over the Los Angeles Basin.
In March, 1983, the Coastal Commission rejected the county's Malibu land-use proposal, criticizing the growth it would allow and labeling it "an embarrassment." By last Thursday, however, a compromise land-use plan--allowing half the new development the county had originally wanted--was before the commission. Fischer expected approval, and then county agreement within months.
As it turned out, the occasion was indeed momentous--but not in the way Fischer had hoped.
The compromise that had taken 27 months to put together collapsed within 12 hours. During a marathon meeting, the commission revised the delicately worded staff document by incorporating many technical changes recommended by the Malibu Township Council, a civic group.
By the end of the session, Commissioner Marshall Grossman had blasted the county for "insensitive and poor planning." And county Planning Director Norman Murdoch said the latest revisions were "unacceptable" and added he was "so angry I can't think of what to say."
And Fischer was saying he believed that a resolution of the sharp differences over Malibu had been pushed "from months away to years away"--a prospect that dismays everyone involved with the tortuous, emotional process.
An agreement between the commission and the county Board of Supervisors would have cleared the way for the county to regain full authority over construction in Malibu.
In 1972, when voters approved Proposition 20, developers along the state's coast were required to obtain approval for projects from both the appropriate local government and the Coastal Commission. The Coastal Act of 1976 provided that shoreline cities and counties could regain full authority over building permits but only after they developed a local coastal program that was acceptable to the commission.
A local coastal program consists of a land-use plan and accompanying zoning ordinances, which must be adhered to when building proposals are considered.
The California shoreline has been divided into 120 sections for which local coastal programs must be prepared. So far, 35--including those for Avalon and Ventura and Santa Barbara counties--have been finished, according to commission analyst Steve Scholl.
The plan for the Malibu zone--which stretches along 27 miles of shoreline and five miles inland to the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains--has been one of the most difficult to complete, Scholl said.
The region's natural beauty, combined with its proximity to millions in the Los Angeles area, makes it attractive to property owners who want to build there--as well as to environmentalists and residents who want to preserve its still-rural flavor.
Both sides say they want the plan completed--the builders because the Coastal Commission has been reluctant to approve many large projects without one, and the civic organizations because they believe that without limits they must fight each individual project as if it might pave the way for more.
About 20,000 people now live in more than 8,000 houses, apartments and condominiums in Malibu. The county originally proposed allowing up to 12,095 more residential units.
Coastal commissioners have expressed concern about the capacity of Pacific Coast Highway--the only direct road between Malibu and Los Angeles. They have also worried publicly about the intensity of commercial development, public beach access, sewers and the role of Pepperdine University in Malibu's overall development.
On the other hand, county officials have said that too many restrictions would rob property owners, many of them with small lots, of the opportunity to build on their land. So the commission staff, based in San Francisco, met nearly every month with county planners, based in Los Angeles. After rehashing even the most obscure points, the two staffs struck a deal.
Among other things, county planners agreed to the heavy reduction in maximum growth, the redesignation of Trancas Canyon as environmentally sensitive (it had been slated to become a commercial center) and a cap of 2,110 new residential units until Pacific Coast Highway has been improved.
At the same time, the commission staff made much of the language in the land-use proposal more vague, giving the county more flexibility in interpreting how to implement many of the plan's requirements.
To county planning director Murdoch, the compromise provided "a modicum, a bare modicum of protection of property rights." He said he could endorse the compromise to the Board of Supervisors.
But the vagueness upset Commissioner Grossman.
"The staff recommendations simply left too much discretion in the hands of the county," Grossman said in an interview this week. "If we were dealing with a county that had demonstrated some sensitivity for the environment over the past few years, I would be prepared to give the county the benefit of the doubt."
He described the county's efforts in Malibu as "a textbook case of planning disaster," citing homes that were approved in geologically unstable areas and then destroyed in landslides.
Since the commission began serving as final arbiter in Malibu, he added, "we have compromised . . . but I'm simply sick and tired of compromising with incompetence."
Grossman said he had not been certain how he would vote when the commission's meeting began Thursday. But "as the hearing went on, I simply became fed up with the prospect of business as usual once the planning responsibility is returned to the county," he said.
So he suggested incorporating nearly all of the recommendations in the Township Council's 24-page proposal, which he described as "changes in tone." On a 6-5 vote, the commission agreed.
Roger Slates, an alternate for Commissioner Donald McInnis, was one of the dissenters. "There's no way in God's green earth that that Board of Supervisors will approve this," he said. "Why are we whistling in the wind?"
Added Commissioner Steve MacElvaine: "We have to live in a world of reality. . . . This is a just a step too far."
Planning director Murdoch was outraged, saying that Commissioner Grossman's allegations "insult me personally" and characterizing the Township Council's many small changes as "designed quite well, quite attractively, to prevent all growth of any kind whatsoever in Malibu."
But Commission Chairman Melvin Nutter, who supported Grossman, said "the positions aren't that far apart." He said the Township Council suggestions included "a number of things that were probably unrealistic. But maybe it will encourage the county to come back with amendments, to say, 'Let's not just put our head in the sand. Let's figure another way out.' "
Madelyn Glickfeld, who chairs the land-use committee for the Township Council, said her organization's proposal also was a compromise from its original position. The council had accepted a regional sewer system and the possibility that the highway may be widened--which it had previously opposed, she said.
And though "there are a lot of people making an argument for a (building) moratorium right now," the council did not recommend a freeze, she added.
Glickfeld said her group is anxious for a plan to be completed. "We don't like that kind of wear and strife in our community," she said. "But we want to resolve it in a way that's principled and reasonable. We are not ready to rush into a bad plan to get a resolution."