Television tycoon A. Jerrold Perenchio has tentatively agreed to donate his 10-acre private golf course in downtown Malibu to the state after his death and the death of his wife, so long as the state retroactively approves the course, which was built 20 years ago without proper permits.
The California Coastal Commission on Thursday gave preliminary approval to the deal, which would preserve one of the largest undeveloped tracts along the Malibu shore as permanent open space. The deal will not be final until the commission issues the retroactive permit for the small seaside pitch-and-putt course, presumably at its next meeting in July.
Perenchio, 73, said in an interview last year that he had built the golf course for his wife, Margie, 55, a former golf champion at Bel Air Country Club. He wanted to make sure she would join him at their weekend home in the Malibu Colony, rather than remain in their primary residence, a mansion in Bel-Air that was the TV home of "The Beverly Hillbillies."
Perenchio originally bought the 10 acres, zoned for 40 homes, in 1982 to keep the land out of the hands of a developer who wanted to build condominiums. He said he wanted to preserve it as open space and obtained a Coastal Commission permit to build a wall, three gazebos, ponds, a jogging track and extensive landscaping. Instead, he built the mini-golf course.
Peter Douglas, the commission's executive director, said the panel routinely grants retroactive permits in such cases unless a property owner is uncooperative or the development involved is so egregious that it calls out for a cease-and-desist order to restore the property.
In this case, he said, negotiations led to a settlement that will benefit the public far more than any fines or other sanctions the commission could have imposed on Perenchio.
As part of the deal, Perenchio also agreed to elaborate steps to minimize leaching of pesticides and fertilizers from the golf course into the adjacent Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.
Besides resolving the matter with the Coastal Commission, Perenchio's decision will settle a lawsuit brought by environmental activists.
"It's a very generous thing for Mr. Perenchio to do and, at the same time, it's the right thing to do," said Marcia Hanscom, director of the Wetlands Action Network. "We are agreeing to settle our lawsuit against him, based on promises given to us."
The short driving range and three putting greens lie alongside Pacific Coast Highway, hidden behind an 8-foot rock wall that surrounds the property. The course is sandwiched between the highway, Malibu Lagoon and Malibu Colony, an exclusive gated community that is home to many celebrities. The land was recently appraised at $24 million.
In a statement released Thursday, Perenchio said he and his wife were "delighted to give something back to the community we love so much. Donating this land next to Malibu Lagoon State Park seemed to us to be the right thing to do for the community of Malibu and for the people of California."
Perenchio, a fiercely private billionaire who heads the Spanish-language TV network Univision, has insisted that the tiny seaside golf course, which his consultants dubbed "Perenchio Park," not carry his name once it is transferred to the state.
He wants the land preserved mostly as grassy parkland for the public -- presumably as part of the adjacent Malibu Lagoon State Park. He also insists that the state maintain two sides of the wall around the property to shield Malibu Colony from the public.
The property is walled off from everything but one of the several homes Perenchio owns in the Colony. "We use it essentially as an extension of our residence for family and friends," he said, explaining that twice a year he hosts barbecues. He occasionally entertains friends there, such as former Mayor Richard Riordan.
The golf course remained largely unseen behind its wall until Hanscom spotted it in aerial photographs and complained to the Coastal Commission that Perenchio was violating his permit.
Her concern was pollution from fertilizers and pesticides running off the golf course into nearby waters. The famous waves of Surfrider Beach, which receives bacteria and chemical-laden runoff from Malibu Creek, Malibu Lagoon and probably nearby septic tanks, are consistently the most polluted in Santa Monica Bay. Malibu Lagoon, listed as impaired by the state, is so choked with algae that the waters in its back channels have no oxygen to support fish or other aquatic life.
Mark Gold, director of Heal the Bay, said it was unclear how much runoff from the golf course had contributed to the lagoon's troubles. But he said the steps Perenchio has promised to take are "extraordinary measures."
Perenchio has agreed to build a system of drains, pipes and a storage tank to collect all sprinkler runoff and rainfall of more than 2 inches. He also agreed to heavily restrict the use of fertilizers and other chemicals and submit to regular monitoring to make sure none of the pollutants make it to the lagoon. He also will plant a buffer of native vegetation.
Gold, who was involved in the negotiations, said Perenchio is taking an admirable approach to safeguarding the lagoon. He added that such a valuable piece of vacant land in Malibu going eventually to the state is an "absolutely amazing turn of events."
The terms of donation dictate that after Perenchio's estate relinquishes the property, eight of the 10 acres will remain landscaped with grass and shrubbery for "passive recreation," which means no ball fields. The other two acres will be converted into wetlands. Perenchio also has imposed restrictions on lighting and insists that none of the property be turned into a public parking lot, his lawyers said.
After the commission's vote, Commissioner Sara Wan, who lives in Malibu, praised the deal. "The public made out very well," Wan said, adding that Perenchio "has clearly given the public more than he had to."
In an interview last year, Perenchio said he considered himself an environmentalist and mentioned generous donations he has made to Heal the Bay and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He also said he has grown weary of being bashed in town, saying he feels "like the Malibu pinata.... Contrary to popular opinion, I'm not a builder. I'm not a developer."
Perenchio has become a target because he owns Malibu Bay Co., a real estate firm that has been engaged in protracted skirmishes over plans for commercial and residential development on land it owns on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway around the Malibu Civic Center and near the mouth of Trancas Canyon.
Perenchio's representatives said Friday that the golf course donation had nothing to do with smoothing the way politically for any development by Malibu Bay Co.
It probably wouldn't work anyway, said Madelyn Glickfeld, an urban planner and former coastal commissioner from Malibu.
She praised Perenchio for his "incredible gift" and pollution controls. "It's the realization of a 20-year dream to help solve some of the problems of the Malibu Lagoon," she said.
But she suggested that his generosity would not win many converts in the fractious community. "It's not been the history of people in the community," she said. "I've never seen a good act be followed by a lot of goodwill."