A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ruled that the California Coastal Commission erred in revoking the license of a Malibu developer accused of grading 14 times the amount of earth his permit allowed and must reconsider the matter.
Although a victory for developer Sheldon Gordon, Judge David P. Yaffe’s decision may have little impact on Gordon’s proposal to build four luxury homes in Malibu’s exclusive Sweetwater Mesa area, because it still leaves the future of the controversial project up to the commission to decide.
“We think it’s encouraging news, and we’re extremely pleased,” said Craig Gordon, the developer’s son.
However, Deputy Atty. Gen. Steven H. Kaufmann said the judge’s ruling represents “a Pyrrhic victory at best,” adding that it will probably have little impact on Gordon’s ability to develop the 184-acre property overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
“In determining that, for technical reasons, the commission may have acted inappropriately, the judge’s decision does not remove the fact that Mr. Gordon still faces the commission’s judgment as to whether revocation should occur,” Kaufmann said.
The matter is expected to be considered by the state panel next month at its meeting in Marina del Rey, he said.
Gordon, who owns the Ma Maison Sofitel Hotel in West Los Angeles, was accused of grading 560,000 cubic yards of earth at the rugged hillside property, exceeding a permit that limited the grading to 40,000 cubic yards.
In revoking his permit last June, several commissioners accused him of having misled them about the amount of grading involved and said they would never have approved the work had they known.
The case became a cause celebre for environmentalists, who hailed the revocation as a signal that the coastal panel was ready to clamp down on accused violators of the state’s 1976 Coastal Act.
Local environmentalists have called it the worst violation of its kind that they can remember in the Malibu area.
In a lawsuit against Gordon filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the coastal panel is seeking $1 million in civil penalties and has asked that he be barred from developing the property and repair the damage done by the grading.
For his part, Gordon contended in the lawsuit he filed that the the commissioners acted unlawfully in revoking the permit without proof that he intentionally misled them. He asked that he be allowed to develop the property.
In his ruling on the Gordon lawsuit last week, Yaffe said that the commission staff was wrong when it concluded that Gordon intentionally misled the commission, based on its finding that he “reasonably should have known” about the grading limit.
The judge ruled that the panel’s decision, by an 8-3 vote, to revoke the permit was improper, because it appeared to be based solely on the staff’s recommendation, which he found to be flawed.
Although the revocation halted future development of the property, the action left unresolved what was to be done to restore the damage caused by the grading.
The commission staff last month issued a permit to allow Gordon to carry out emergency restorative work to the property, which both Gordon and coastal officials say is needed to avert a natural disaster in the event heavy rains trigger landslides on the barren hillsides.
However, Gordon has resisted doing the work, insisting that he be allowed to construct a paved road across the property that could be used as part of his future development plans.
Both the coastal staff and fire officials agree that a road is necessary to provide for maintenance and access to the property, but the commission has insisted that any paved road built there should be temporary, and no more than 12 feet wide.
Chuck Damm, the commission’s deputy director, said Wednesday that after talking recently with Gordon’s representatives, coastal officials were “hopeful that we are near to achieving agreement on Mr. Gordon’s going forward with the restorative work in the very near future.
“It’s absolutely urgent that something be done up there before there is a storm that could cause serious destruction,” he said.