‘Malibu Days’ May Become Agony of the Past for State


They call them “Malibu Days.” At the California Coastal Commission, they are the prolonged sessions when state officials charged with protecting the entire 1,100-mile coastline become mired in the minutiae of deck rebuilds, garage add-ons, even bathroom additions for some of the state’s most affluent residents.

Coastal commissioners loathe Malibu Days. They always have--saddled with duties that should belong to municipal planning commissioners because Malibu has never gotten around to writing its own coastal development plan.

This year, lobbying by the rich and famous on a series of cases reached a fever pitch. The furious politicking culminated in May, when entertainment mogul David Geffen deployed a phalanx of high-powered representatives, who seemed to draw special handling as Geffen won permission to build a sea wall at his Malibu estate.


When one of the Democratic Party’s top benefactors is determined to get his way, it is far from business as usual--the governor must be contacted, his top environmental appointee weighs in and a new coastal commissioner is appointed to ensure a quorum.

Now even state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) have grown weary of the lobbying by Malibu’s elite.

The legislators, who appoint two-thirds of the 12-member commission, won approval late in the session for a bill that attempts to end Malibu Days once and for all. The proposal--awaiting Gov. Gray Davis’ signature by the Saturday deadline--would write a formal Local Coastal Plan for Malibu and put the city in charge of issuing its own coastal development permits.

“The biggest pain in the ass for the Coastal Commission, and for those of us with appointees on it, are all these people who live in Malibu who want to do all sorts of things on their piece of beach property,” Burton said this week.

“I believe the commission spends more damned time on Malibu than they do on the rest of the coast combined,” Burton said. “And we’ve basically had enough.”

Burton’s bill orders the Coastal Commission staff to draft the Malibu coastal plan by a September 2002 deadline. At that time, Malibu’s Planning Commission and City Council would assume authority to review coastal development permits.


The proposal will “let Malibu do their own . . . thing and get us out of the middle of this,” Burton said.

Burton said he has discussed the legislation with Davis. But no one is certain whether Davis--whose staff and Coastal Commission appointees also have been buffeted by Malibu lobbyists--will sign the bill, AB 988.

Malibu Opposes Legislation

Malibu leaders oppose the legislation. They concede that the 9-year-old city has been slow to take responsibility for coastal permits. But they contend that a recently elected City Council majority is moving expeditiously to approve a Local Coastal Plan of its own.

“The city of Malibu is never going to give up control of planning issues without a fight,” said City Manager Christy Hogin.

But legislative leaders are fed up. The drumbeat of phone calls from Malibu this year was exemplified by Geffen’s sea wall campaign.

Records and interviews indicate the intense effort by the DreamWorks SKG studio founder to win approval for a 46-foot-long timber and concrete wall to protect a guest home at his four-lot compound on Carbon Beach.


Geffen assigned two savvy political operators, Andy Spahn and Wendy Greuel, to the task. Usually the duo oversees legislative matters and fund-raising for the studio’s chieftains, who give hundreds of thousands of dollars to various candidates and causes. Rounding out Geffen’s team was Susan McCabe. The former coastal commissioner and lobbyist has helped many Malibu property owners win building permits.

The high-powered team told state officials that Geffen needed the sea wall to protect the wood pilings that support the nearly 30-year-old guest home. They noted that the wall would merely extend a similar 240-foot-long bulkhead already protecting Geffen’s main house and grounds.

But the Coastal Commission’s staff has been making a major push to prevent the construction of new sea walls, and even attempting to have old ones removed. Such coastal “armoring” has been shown to worsen beach erosion and remove sands that are supposed to be open for public enjoyment.

Four Malibu homeowners--including the families of actor Lloyd Bridges and producer Irwin Allen--had recently won permission to protect homes without sea walls. Instead, they decided to wrap wood pilings in concrete casings--a strategy that allows for a more natural flow of tides and sand.

The commission’s staff and engineers argued that Geffen could do the same, although the mogul’s representatives said he would have to tear down the guest house to do so. The staff countered that Geffen hadn’t proven the need for a sea wall in the first place, since the home had never been threatened by the tides.

Geffen’s trio of lobbyists called or visited most of the 12 commissioners. One asked Burton and Hertzberg if they could do something to help, since the two legislators are responsible for appointing two-thirds of the commissioners.


DreamWorks executive Spahn raised the issued directly with Davis, who appoints a third of the Coastal Commission, at the studio’s post-Academy Awards party at Spago Beverly Hills.

Spahn said he complained that Geffen was being treated unfairly by the same state agency that had years earlier approved protective sea walls for Geffen’s main house.

When Spahn mentioned the Malibu planning matter, the governor responded: “Another one?” Spahn remembered.

The governor recalled that he had just heard complaints on behalf of three other Malibu permit applicants, Spahn said. Billionaire Eli Broad, television magnate Haim Saban and Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, were wrangling with the Coastal Commission for permission to build expansive homes on the same stretch of beach where Geffen lives, just down the coast from the Malibu Pier.

“There was a buzz in the Capitol and other places about this [Geffen] issue,” recalled Coastal Commissioner John Woolley. “Some commissioners had been talked to about this already and supposedly said they were in support even before the hearing.”

When the matter finally came before the commission at its May meeting in Santa Rosa, sea wall opponents said Geffen’s clout was much in evidence.


Davis had approved the appointment of an alternate commissioner, Tom Soto, in time for the meeting. Soto filled in for another vacationing commissioner and voted for Geffen’s sea wall.

Opponents found intrigue in the fact that Soto only showed up for the day of the Geffen vote. He has not attended any of the commission’s meetings since.

Furthermore, at the end of a two-hour debate on the Geffen case, Davis’ top environmental official urged a vote in favor of Geffen’s wall. Some Coastal Commission members and staff said they could not recall state resources director Mary Nichols, or any of her predecessors, ever addressing such a mundane item on behalf of one applicant.

Soto acknowledges that when he was appointed--four days before the meeting--there was concern that he was needed to secure a quorum. “They needed a quorum to move some items,” Soto said, although plenty of members ended up attending.

Soto said, however, that he did not attend the meeting to help Geffen. He said he missed subsequent sessions because of other commitments and because he believed the commission would have a quorum without him.

For her part, Nichols said at the meeting that she spoke in her role as a nonvoting member of the commission because she believed that Geffen’s application was unfairly being singled out for scrutiny.


Rather than helping him, Geffen’s fame made him the target of Coastal Commission staffers who seemed intent on using a high-profile case to register their opposition to sea walls, Nichols said this week.

“My only point in speaking out [for the Geffen wall] was that this was being blown by the staff into a big precedential issue,” she said. “It wasn’t. It should have been viewed as an individual application on the merits of the case.”

In the end, the commission voted 7 to 3 to allow construction of the wall. All four of Davis’ appointees voted for the wall, joined by three of the legislators’ appointees.

Parties on both sides of the debate agreed that it would be better in the future if local officials handled such matters. The Burton-Hertzberg bill would accomplish that goal, by singling Malibu out among the host of jurisdictions that lack coastal plans.


Times staff writer Jenifer Warren contributed to this report from Sacramento.