No signs point the way to Perenchio Park, a pitch-and-putt golf course hidden behind an enormous rock wall in the heart of Malibu.
Few people aside from the immediate neighbors in the exclusive Malibu Colony knew it existed.
That is, until a pair of environmental activists tipped off the California Coastal Commission, which has since determined the private golf course, owned by media tycoon A. Jerrold Perenchio, was built 20 years ago without a permit.
Perenchio, 72, the head of the Spanish-language television network Univision, argues that he received the informal consent of the commission to turn what was then a vacant lot into a pitch-and-putt golf course.
He has dispatched a team of lawyers and lobbyists to the commission meeting today to request an after-the-fact permit for the 10-acre practice golf course.
While activists argue that the golf course is illegal, neighbors are divided. Some are concerned about lawn chemicals polluting Malibu Lagoon.
Others are grateful that Perenchio cleaned up a weedy, trash-filled lot and walled off one edge of the Malibu Colony, a gated community of about 120 beach houses, some of which are owned by movie stars and other luminaries.
“That piece of ground was a dump, and every kind of rodent lived there, including some human ones,” said Ken Dimin, whose second- and third-floor windows overlook the golf course. “Our security was not so great before he put the wall up. I never knew if someone was going to come through my back door at night.”
The commission’s staff is recommending retroactive approval, but critics are crying foul, citing Perenchio’s $1 million in contributions to Gov. Gray Davis since 1999 and his ties to other political leaders.
“That’s just poppycock,” said Perenchio. “I have not asked Gray Davis for one thing, of any kind, not in two terms in office. The chips will fall where they fall. The facts are the facts.”
As a rule, Perenchio declines interviews. He said it is a lesson he learned while working at MCA for the late Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman: “Don’t give interviews. Don’t do panels. Stay out of the spotlight; it fades your suit.”
He decided to make an exception because “I thought maybe I should go to my own defense. I feel like the Malibu pinata.
“A lot of people are misinformed” about his golf course, he said.
In 1982, Perenchio received the commission’s permission to temporarily install landscaping, gazebos, ponds and a jogging track on the acreage he bought behind two of the four properties he owns in the Malibu Colony.
“My wife is a golfer, and I played a little golf, and she talked me into putting what, in effect, was a park with three greens that you could hit to -- short, medium and long, and a putting green,” Perenchio said.
He said his representative returned to the commission staff with the change of plans, such as dropping the planned gazebos and ponds in exchange for putting greens. “We were led to believe that because we were cutting it back, it was OK.”
“It was a little looser then,” Perenchio said. “They didn’t have all of the rules and regulations. I would be willing to bet, if anyone went back 20 years or more to any of the permits granted, that nobody has complied to the exact letter of things. It seems to me that some of these things should be grandfathered.”
Perenchio, who owns the Malibu Bay Co. real estate firm, has been bracing for protracted skirmishes over his ambitious commercial and residential development plans around Malibu Civic Center and near the mouth of Trancas Canyon.
But now he has found his private golf course at the center of a kerfuffle.
“It’s outrageous that this could go on so long without a permit,” said Mark Massara, head of the Sierra Club’s coastal programs.
“This golf course has drained hundreds of pounds of insecticides, fungicides, fertilizers and herbicides each year into Malibu Lagoon,” wrote Marcia Hanscom and Robert Jan van de Hoek, the tipsters who live in Malibu and run the Wetlands Action Network, an environmental organization.
Jan Chatten-Brown, an attorney hired by the Sierra Club and the California Coastal Protection Network, argues that the commission’s approval after the fact would set a bad precedent: “If a permit for the golf course is retroactively approved, it will be a green light to all other developers to put whatever they want on their land and then wait until their violation is discovered before applying for a permit.”
The staff has recommended approving the golf course permit with some conditions, including steps to reduce lawn chemicals and polluted runoff into Malibu Lagoon and adjacent Surfrider Beach.
“The Coastal Commission staff [members] are falling apart like overcooked chickens,” said Steve Uhring, a Malibu resident objecting to what he considers excessive development.
“You’ve got to believe it’s got something to do with his connections. Jerry is a big contributor to everybody. Money makes people do unnatural acts.”
Peter Douglas, executive director of the commission, said that the panel routinely grants retroactive permits and that the decision has not been influenced by outside pressure.
“I’m really a bit surprised by the furor generated over this project,” Douglas said.
“Some activists brought it to our attention, and we looked into it. We sent him a letter, saying basically that: ‘This is a violation, and you have to come to the commission for an amendment or permit to approve what you actually built.’ ”
Douglas said all this is routine, unless the property owner is uncooperative or the commission staff determines that the development is so egregious that it would never stand a chance of retroactive approval.
In those cases, the commission can issue cease-and-desist orders and instruct owners to restore the property. “I’m very conservative in using cease-and-desist orders,” Douglas said. “We try to use this sparingly as a tool of last resort. We try to resolve these things by working with the property owner.”
Perenchio said he has been cooperative with the commission, hiring consultants who determined that his gardeners last year used 838 pounds of 11 insecticides, fungicides and herbicides -- mostly on the putting greens.
His team of lawyers and lobbyists working on “Perenchio Park,” as the briefing materials call it, includes a former Coastal Commission manager who oversaw his original permit.
Perenchio is willing to install a system of pipes that would capture sprinkler runoff and some rainfall and hold it in a tank for irrigation rather than let it continue to pollute the lagoon.
“I consider myself an environmentalist,” said the former boxing promoter and talent scout who, with an estimated net worth of $2.3 billion, ranks 162nd on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people.
Perenchio said he originally purchased the land to keep the 10 acres out of the hands of a developer who wanted to build condominiums, which he considered inappropriate next to Malibu Colony’s single-family homes. Perenchio’s principal residence is the Bel-Air mansion used as the TV home of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“Contrary to public opinion, I’m not a developer,” Perenchio said. “I’d like to freeze-dry Malibu and keep it the way it is.”
That’s why, he said, he built the golf course.
“We wanted to beautify the area,” Perenchio said.
“There was a ditch that ran along the back of the property close to the ocean. It was really a mess.... During the rainy season, water would come in there and run into the lagoon. During the non-rainy season, it was a rat-infested, snake-infested, mosquito-infested ditch that was unsanitary.”
Perenchio said fewer than 60 people get on the course a year. All are invited guests, such as friend and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
Perenchio said he doesn’t play anymore because he has had hip replacements. So the course is mostly used by his wife, a former champion at Bel Air Country Club, and her friends.
“They say it is a nine-hole course,” he said. “It’s not a golf course. It’s a pitch-and-putt course and a miniature driving range with three target greens. To hit it out of the park, you’d have to hit it 270 yards on the fly. There has been nobody who has done that.”