Malibu Cityhood Election: Trouble Beneath the Glitz


With its sun-drenched image immortalized in Beach Boys songs, trashy novels and TV movies, Malibu’s status as a favored haunt of the rich and famous has soared with the years.

But despite its standing as a fabled seaside haven--People magazine once called it the ultimate isolation tank of celebrity--Malibu is a very troubled paradise these days.

Voters in this coastal community go to the polls June 5 to decide whether to make Malibu the newest city in Los Angeles County, and approval is considered nearly certain. The world press will descend in the next few weeks to chronicle the event, and in all likelihood will use it as a springboard for yet another batch of dispatches on the community’s bikini-clad history and celebrity-rich environment. Surf city, here we come.

Underneath the glitzy veneer, however, will be a community at odds with itself. Long known as an area beset by natural disasters such as landslides and raging winter storms, recent events in Malibu have highlighted a series of man-made troubles.


The town of about 20,000 has been racked by political dissension and personality clashes. Candidates for the first City Council admit they expect to be greeted by a slew of civic problems if Malibu becomes a city, including traffic woes, liability questions and growth concerns.

Leaders of the two groups that launched and carried the cityhood drive to the ballot box are not on speaking terms. The business community, wary of the anti-development sentiments expressed by many of the council candidates, is divided over the merits of cityhood. One of the more than 30 council candidates is running on an anti- cityhood campaign, warning of imminent financial collapse.

To some in the community, the tension reflects business as usual.

“When the last Chumash Indian left Malibu, he left a curse,” said Roy Crummer, the largest commercial developer in town until he sold his company last year. “Malibu is filled with lots of people who are committed and a lot of others who ought to be.”

“A lot of people in Malibu just love to fight, and I think that kind of negativism destroys the peaceful serenity that drew them out here to begin with,” said Dr. Susan Reynolds, who runs the Malibu Emergency Room and is president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Much of the divisiveness springs from vast geographic and socioeconomic differences that exist in Malibu, where the merely wealthy and the super-rich often find themselves at odds.

There are beach people and mountain people. Those in the mountains are plagued by landslides and brush fires. On the beach, it’s winter storms and a sometimes destructive surf. “Malibu: Where the slide meets the tide” bumper stickers were a hot item a few years back.

Then there are the west and east ends of Malibu, separated by 20 miles of rugged coastline and joined only by a heavily congested highway and a desire to keep things from getting worse.

There are the longtime residents and the arrivistes. The old-timers are a lot like residents of other small California towns. Their children play in Little League and they may be active in Kiwanis or the PTA. They attend the annual Labor Day weekend chili cook-off and came to Malibu when--yes, there once was such a time--it was largely affordable. They could not afford to purchase their homes today, but have built up huge equity in their modest ranch-style houses.

Then there is Robin Leach’s Malibu. That is the place where people buy a $2-million house, tear it down and replace it with a 15,000-square-foot monument to the good life. It is the Malibu of the mega-star, the super-rich and the celebrity-only social circle. It is the Malibu of advertising and tabloid legend, the sybaritic sun ‘n’ fun sanctuary that automobile manufacturers, bicycle makers and even tobacco companies have tried to cash in on.

Malibu’s excesses sometimes make headlines around the world--at least in the tabloids. When producer-developer Jerry Perenchio bought some prime real estate next to the Malibu Colony and turned it into one of the world’s most expensive private golf courses, the foreign press was there.

When a controversy arose over the former Guru Maharaj Ji’s application to triple the number of helicopter landings at his Malibu mountain ridge estate (the Perfect Master of the Divine Light Mission hated to be stuck in traffic on Pacific Coast Highway), reporters were on the scene.

And when some local businessmen decided to thank firefighters and law enforcement officers who saved dozens of homes during a huge 1985 blaze, they treated the civil servants to a lavish luncheon at Geoffrey’s, complete with movie and TV stars. The uniformed officers were filmed grinning and shrugging by crews from CNN and Movieline magazine and nearly a dozen other photographers.

Yet only rarely do the varied economic elements mix. At various times, the likes of Christie Brinkley, Olivia Newton-John, Michael Landon and Rob Lowe have testified at public hearings against sewers and in favor of cityhood. They are mostly pressed into service to generate publicity and are not part of the strident group of loyalists who see themselves as the stewards of the coast, Santa Monica Bay and the mountains.

“These are two separate communities living side by side but having different values,” said Madelyn Glickfeld, a member of the state Coastal Commission and a Malibu resident for nearly two decades. “One group can barely afford to stay in the community and is really threatened financially by the sewer assessment (of $14,000 per household). The other sees it generally as a prestige place to live, a new Bel-Air.”

Although Malibu is recognized worldwide as a playground of the rich and famous, it is not even the richest community in Los Angeles County. An independent study by Donnelly Demographics in 1989 showed that Malibu trailed San Marino in average household income, $102,000 to $89,000. The average in Beverly Hills was a mere $76,000.

As a civic trouble spot, however, Malibu has few rivals. Its beauty has made it a natural battleground. When environmentalists see the ocean views from the mountains their eyes water; when developers see the views, their mouths water.

Town residents have clashed with local, state and federal authorities for control of Malibu for most of the 20th Century. And while the community has managed to thwart major development for nearly 40 years, it has yet to win the right to govern itself.

The individual fights make up much of Malibu’s recent history. In the early 1900s, Southern Pacific planned to connect Santa Monica and Santa Barbara by train with a rail extension straight through the 27-mile-long, mountainous coastal area that makes up most of the area known as Malibu.

But Southern Pacific had never dealt with the Rindge family, the fourth and last owners of the Malibu Rancho, which included 17,000 acres of what is now some of the most expensive real estate in the United States.

When May K. Rindge, the family matriarch, learned of Southern Pacific’s plans, she built her own railroad to ship grain and hides from the ranch. Called the Hueneme, Malibu & Port Los Angeles Railway, it operated for less than 20 years, but that was enough to thwart Southern Pacific, because state law prohibited one railroad from condemning a right-of-way parallel to an existing line.

The Rindges also fought for years in state and federal courts to block the construction of the Roosevelt Highway, which later became Pacific Coast Highway.

Retired Judge John J. Merrick, a docent of the Malibu Lagoon Museum and a heavy favorite to be elected to the first City Council, sees a strong resemblance between the old Malibu and the new one.

“The Rindges fought to keep Malibu private for years, and after it was opened up, the first thing people did when they moved out here was to build walls around their houses,” he said. “Just like Mrs. Rindge.”

That so-called “drawbridge mentality” has been cited by developers, supervisors and others who have encountered resistance in Malibu over the years. They claim that people who move to Malibu want to keep it as is, but only after they have developed their own piece of the rock.

Still, Malibu old-timers remember well some of the more outrageous projects that have been envisioned for the beach town. If they had not won some of those battles, they say, Malibu would not be worth fighting over today.

There was the 1964 plan, unveiled by Westinghouse Electric Corp. and supported by the Department of Water and Power, to construct a nuclear power plant where Corral Canyon meets Pacific Coast Highway. The reactor would have been the nation’s largest.

But angry residents, who hired geologists to study the plans, said the site was on an active earthquake fault. Still, it took nearly two years to convince DWP officials and members of the Atomic Energy Commission that a nuclear reactor had no place in Malibu.

Shortly thereafter, county supervisors proposed a development plan that would have expanded Malibu’s population to 400,000--about 20 times what it is now. The plan basically would have extended Santa Monica to the end of Malibu, connecting the coastal communities with a huge array of condominiums, apartments and businesses.

Then in the ‘70s, there was a plan to extend the Marina Freeway along the entire length of the Malibu coastline. Once again, a majority of Malibu residents opposed it as an environmental menace and defeated it.

Controversial proposals such as the nuclear plant have been at the root of nearly half a dozen attempts to incorporate Malibu since 1950, and the June election will be the third that has made it to the ballot. In 1964, the measure was overwhelmingly defeated. Twelve years later, incorporation failed by fewer than 100 votes.

This campaign, the outcome of which will be decided by residents within the proposed city limits, was launched in 1987 by members of the Malibu Township Council, the largest political body in town. The council acted after supervisors tried to push through an $86-million sewer system that Malibu leaders said would have paved the way for construction of large motels, resorts and commercial developments.

Although supervisors backed off, they approved a $43-million sewer for Malibu despite widespread protest in the community. The cost of the system, and the anger over the board’s insistence on getting it in place before Malibu incorporates, has only fueled resentment toward the county.

In fact, campaign leaders agree, the incorporation drive has been characterized less as a pro-cityhood effort than as an attempt by Malibu to secede from the shadow of the county supervisors. In any case, the squabble with the county over the sewer is certain to continue long after the election, because a condition of cityhood was that the county maintain control over the sewer system for 10 years.

But now that town residents have shown a united front in fighting against something that they don’t want, can they agree on what’s best for a city of Malibu?

“This community is expert at stopping the other side, expert at the politics of being victims,” said Coastal Commissioner Glickfeld. “But we’ve never been able to deal with what we do want.

“It’s kind of exciting because this community has never had local politics. It’s kind of like a baby learning to walk.”

Council candidates and residents agree that any elected officials in Malibu will face a rough road in mapping out their community’s future. Malibu has a nominal civic center but no downtown. Leapfrog development has resulted in a string of mini-malls, tacky shops, fast-food outlets and small businesses along Pacific Coast Highway.

Growth prospects are limited by the coast highway. It has only two lanes in each direction for most of the length of Malibu, and in many spots it cannot be widened. And the ruggedness of the Santa Monica Mountains rules out construction of any alternative road.

During the summer, Malibu gets up to 400,000 beach-goers and tourists each day, creating massive traffic jams and parking problems. Illegal developments in the hills have eclipsed the enforcement capabilities of the county and the Coastal Commission.

The lack of an architectural review board has led to the construction of 20,000-square-foot concrete palaces next to wooden beach shacks, and traditional Spanish-style homes next to high-tech residential wonders of neon and stucco.

“There is a tremendous amount of tackiness here and I believe there’s a strong desire among the business community to clean up PCH,” said Reynolds, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

“Even if there’s not going to be a lot of development here, we would like what’s here to look nice,” she said. “We would like it to be appealing so that when people come to Malibu, they spend money, because that’s not often the case now.”

Leon Cooper, one of the original cityhood campaign leaders, sees Malibu as a relic that some money-hungry developers would like to tear down in the name of progress. And that, he says, would be a tragedy.

“There just aren’t many places like Malibu left in the world and it’s worth every fight if we can stop from destroying it. But without having the county as a whipping boy, we’d better be on our guards. From then on, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.”

Malibu: Paradise Lost and Found 1. Broad Beach--Newest celebrity hot spot. The mansionizing of the beach has already begun, with Sylvester Stallone and others leading the way.

2. Zuma Beach--Valley girls and guys come over the hill to congregate here. They are greeted by “Vals Die” graffiti from locals.

3. Point Dume--Sean and Madonna tied the knot here beneath the swirling helicopters of the paparazzi, but most of the celebrities--Johnny Carson, Martin Sheen, et al.--have chosen this community of seaside estates for its privacy.

4. Paradise Cove mobile home park--Champagne views for a baked-beans price.

5. Corral Canyon--One of the many pristine coastal canyons in Malibu, its mouth was once chosen to be the site of the nation’s largest atomic power plant.

6. Sewer plant site--Los Angeles County wants to put its sewage treatment plant on a six-acre site near PCH and John Tyler Drive. The residents of the million-dollar homes in nearby Malibu Country Estates say the idea stinks.

7. Pepperdine University--Fearful that a slow-growth city government would limit its planned expansion, the politically well-connected school managed to get itself excluded from the proposed city.

8. Malibu Colony--The last word in gated enclaves. Minimum asking price: $3.5 million.

9. Surfrider Beach--The spawning ground of the California surf culture.

10. Big Rock Mesa--An example of the hazards of life in Malibu: The county and the state were found negligent for allowing development of this landslide-plagued area. The residents settled for $97 million.

11. Getty Museum--It may have a Malibu mailing address, but after the election, it won’t really be in Malibu.