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Coastal Panel Urged to Ban Beach Project : Development: Building homes on private stretch of sand in Malibu would set a ‘devastating precedent’ for state, staff warns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The staff of the California Coastal Commission has warned that a plan to build luxury homes on a private Malibu beach could open the door to massive development along the coastline.

Saying that it would set a “devastating precedent,” the commission’s top official has urged the state panel to reject a proposal by developer Norman Haynie and his associates to build the first of up to 17 houses along pristine Lechuza Beach.

“If there were ever impacts associated with a project that the Coastal Act was intended to prevent, those resulting from this project would have to be at or near the top of the list,” said Peter Douglas, the commission’s executive director.

His remarks were part of an unusually blunt staff recommendation issued last week.

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The commission is scheduled to consider the matter Tuesday when it meets in Los Angeles. Because of the precedent it could set, environmentalists say, the outcome could have a major impact on the state’s coastal protection program.

At issue is whether the developers should be allowed to build on the sandy beachfront that they own, but which state officials say cannot be developed unless they also approve a protective seawall.

The commission staff said construction of a seawall on the beach would violate the 1976 Coastal Act, which allows seawalls to be built only when required to protect existing structures. There are no structures on the 1,600-foot-long stretch of sand where the developers want to build.

The only time the commission has allowed seawalls to be built has been when a new project is a so-called infilling of an already developed area, such as when a vacant lot is sandwiched between two homes. “This project is clearly not an infill project,” the staff report said.

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However, the developers have promoted a broader interpretation of infill, citing the houses that already exist at either end of the unspoiled beach.

Because the proposal also involves issues of property rights and public access, the outcome appears to be difficult to predict. The panel, ordinarily composed of 12 members, has one vacancy, which Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) may choose to fill with a replacement at any time.

In September, when the matter was discussed but not voted upon, environmentalists on the panel expressed strong opposition to the developers’ plan, though more conservative members were supportive, citing the owners’ rights to develop their property.

If Tuesday’s vote is close, Commissioner Lily Cervantes of Salinas may play a key role. At the September hearing, Cervantes said that her vote may hinge on who can best guarantee public access to the beach.

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Both the developers and a group of homeowners in the private, gated community that borders the beach have offered competing plans to provide public access. The homeowners insist that if the project is approved, it would destroy the beach.

“At this point there isn’t a hell of a lot we can do except rely on the people on the Coastal Commission to abide by the law,” said Charles Kennedy, who belongs to a group called Save Lechuza Beach.

Haynie, an owner and representative of Lechuza Villas West, the partnership seeking to develop the beach, dismissed the residents’ opposition as an attempt to keep the area to themselves.

“The fact that wealthy homeowners want to maintain the property for their own personal recreation shouldn’t have any bearing on our constitutional right to build on our own property,” he said.

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Haynie said the commission staff had exaggerated the safety issue, adding that the developers’ engineers had assured him that any homes built there would be safe with or without a seawall.

“To my knowledge, the staff has not employed one licensed professional engineer to review this specific beach and the proposed project,” he said. “How can they state from a credible position that they know more about safety than (licensed professionals)?”

Haynie and his associates bought the 17 beachfront parcels in January from the Adamson Cos., the same day the coastal panel rejected the firm’s proposal to develop several of the building sites. Haynie had served as the Adamson Cos.’ agent.

In June, several Lechuza Beach residents offered Haynie $2.1 million for the property--which they say is slightly more than the group paid for it. The offer was rejected.

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Haynie has said the $2.1 million “was not even close” to what the group paid for the property. He declined to reveal the purchase price but said the property had been appraised for “in excess of $20 million.”

In an interview last week, Haynie said that if he and his associates were given the go-ahead Tuesday to develop three of the parcels, they would offer to sell the state nine of the parcels for 75% of the appraised value, presumably about $15 million.

However, commission officials expressed no enthusiasm for such an arrangement.

In recent months, Haynie has also been engaged in talks with the California State Coastal Conservancy, which has expressed interest in helping to acquire the property for the state by combining its funds with those offered by the homeowners.

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Steve Horn, the conservancy’s project manager, said the talks were not fruitful because of differences over price and the fact that adequate public funds aren’t available even at a much lower price than Haynie and his associates want.

In recommending that the project be rejected, the staff said “the adverse precedent (that approval) would set for other areas of the coast, not just in the Malibu area, would be devastating to California’s coastal protection program.”

The staff said the decision should not rest on the question of who is in the better legal position to guarantee public access to the beach.

“Mandatory Coastal Act policies cannot be traded off against or superseded simply by an applicant offering to dedicate easements for public access, as important as public access may be,” the report said.

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