State agency drops opposition to U2 guitarist's Malibu project in exchange for $1 million, services

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The state planning agency that oversees open space in the Santa Monica Mountains will drop its opposition to a controversial bid by U2 guitarist The Edge to build a compound of homes above Malibu in exchange for more than $1 million in funding, consulting services and trail easements from the musician and his partners.

In a deal with the Irish rocker narrowly approved this week, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy agreed to take a neutral position on the high-profile project in exchange for a $750,000 payment, $250,000 worth of work by a consultant who works for the musician, conservation easements and development restrictions around the homes that would eventually allow a short length of trail to be built through a sliver of the property.

The Edge -- a.k.a. David Evans -- has been fighting for permits to build five mansions, including his own, on Sweetwater Mesa since 2006, when he and his wife bought the 156-acre property.

But the project has been stymied by widespread opposition from conservation groups and the California Coastal Commission, who say it would scar an undeveloped ridgeline visible from much of the Malibu coastline and disturb geological features and sensitive habitat.

In 2009 the conservancy wrote a letter to the coastal commission strongly opposing the project, saying it was inconsistent with the state Coastal Act and would be impossible to build without "unavoidable significant adverse visual and ecological impacts."

According to the agreement approved Monday in a 3-2 vote by its board, the conservancy does not have to rescind the 2009 letter, but going forward could not speak out against the project.

The agency will not receive its money and other benefits unless the project gets final approval and survives any appeals or legal challenges. The conservancy is also obligated to pass a resolution, write and speak in favor of the deal and may not oppose the development of three other homes proposed for nearby Carbon Mesa.

Critics characterized the deal as Evans buying the agency's silence.

"This would break up a large block of almost pristine wildlife habitat--one of the most impressive coastal-mountain interfaces in the country," said David Brown, a Sierra Club leader who sits on the conservancy's advisory board. "And though you're not really endorsing the project, you're withdrawing your objections to it, and it's not acceptable."

Supporters of the deal said they did not believe the conservancy's change in position would necessarily sway the coastal commission to support the project. But if the homes were approved, the area would gain open space it would not otherwise have as well as key segments of the long-sought Coastal Slope Trail.

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