The California Coastal Commission on Thursday postponed granting Spanish-language television magnate A. Jerrold Perenchio a retroactive permit for his private golf course in Malibu, after officials said the commission would almost certainly be sued regardless of what it decided.
The 12 commissioners told their staff to examine the legal issues more carefully and come back with a clearer understanding of what is permissible under zoning and coastal development rules.
The decision came after a team of 10 Perenchio lawyers and lobbyists made a last-minute effort to sweeten the deal by offering state officials the first right to purchase the property for public parkland, should Perenchio or his heirs be willing to sell it.
Commissioners were skeptical of the offer because of the price tag, with one commissioner calculating the cost at $140 million or more.
"We could buy the Hearst Ranch or part of it for that amount," said Commissioner Patrick Kruer, a real estate developer.
Kruer said Perenchio instead should consider donating 100 feet of his property along Malibu Lagoon as a buffer between the golf course and the wetlands. A 100-foot setback is the current standard for development next to environmentally sensitive areas.
Rick Zbur, Perenchio's lead lawyer in the matter, declined to comment other than to say: "We are going to have to rethink the whole matter and prepare for the next time it comes before the commission." That's likely to happen in October.
Perenchio wants the coastal commission to issue a permit for the pitch and putt golf course that he built on his property next to one of his homes in the Malibu Colony, a gated seaside community popular as a weekend and summer playground of movie stars and other luminaries.
Perenchio, a politically well-connected businessman who heads the Spanish-language television network Univision, received the commission's permission in 1982 to build an 8-foot rock wall, three gazebos, ponds, a jogging track and extensive landscaping on the acreage between the Malibu Colony and Pacific Coast Highway.
He said his wife, Margaret Rose, a former champion golfer at the Bel Air Country Club, talked him into building a practice course with three practice greens and a large putting green.
One of his representatives, he said, went back to the Coastal Commission staff and received informal permission to swap out the track and gazebos for sand traps and putting greens. "We were lead to believe that because we were cutting it back, it would be OK," he said in an interview.
Although Perenchio did not attend Thursday's meeting, Zbur said his client would be willing to cut back on pesticides used on the greens and build an elaborate system of drains, pipes and a storage tank to collect sprinkler runoff and halt chemical-contaminated water from reaching the lagoon.
Yet Zbur said Perenchio was not willing to halt the use of all pesticides and fertilizers, nor was he willing to tear down the block wall, which some critics at the meeting wanted removed because it blocks coastal views of the lagoon and beach.
Perenchio's representatives met with each commissioner individually in recent weeks to argue that the golf course has far less impact on the wetlands than building 40 houses on the 10 acres, which Perenchio would be entitled to do under current zoning rules.
Jan Chatten-Brown, a lawyer representing environmental activists, argued that the golf course is clearly a violation of coastal development rules and would not be permitted today. She has hinted that a lawsuit will follow if the commissioners do not hold Perenchio to the letter of the law and reject the permit.
Peter Douglas, the commission's executive director, recommended that the commissioners postpone action to allow more study of legal pitfalls. "I'm concerned that either way we decide, we would end up in litigation. So I want to make sure we do it right."