The California Coastal Commission on Thursday rejected a controversial proposal by U2 guitarist the Edge to build five mansions on a rugged ridgeline above Malibu that is home to mountain lions and native chaparral.
The 8-4 vote was the culmination of what has become a closely watched property rights battle between the musician, whose real name is David Evans, and the agency that regulates development along the California coastline.
"In 38 years of this commission's existence, this is one of the three worst projects that I've seen in terms of environmental devastation," Peter Douglas, the agency's executive director, said in an interview after the vote. "It's a contradiction in terms — you can't be serious about being an environmentalist and pick this location" given the effects on habitat, land formation, scenic views and water quality.
Douglas said he expected the matter to end up in court.
Evans has been trying to win permits since 2006 to build his home and four others in the Sweetwater Mesa area, hiring prominent lobbyists and promoting the development as environmentally friendly — a notion many conservationists derided.
Spokeswoman Fiona Hutton said Evans and the other property owners would be exploring their options.
"They undertook this effort with a deep personal commitment and sense of responsibility to protect environmental resources and develop environmentally superior homes," she said in a prepared statement. "This commitment was recognized and praised by many of the commissioners during their lengthy and complex deliberations. The property owners remain steadfast in their vision."
The final minutes before the vote saw a flurry of maneuvering after it became clear that the commissioners would be rejecting the project. An attorney for one of the owners unexpectedly withdrew the application for one of the houses, and project consultant Don Schmitz asked the commission to postpone its vote on the entire proposal.
Hutton later said a lawsuit was "a strong option."
If the matter goes to court, at issue would be whether the proposal constituted five distinct projects or one large one and whether the commission's denial represented an unconstitutional "taking" of property, attorneys from both sides said.
Before Thursday's vote, commission staff reports twice recommended the project be rejected, saying it would disturb sensitive habitat and scar a scenic hilltop visible from much of the Malibu coast.
Staff members also had expressed concern that the 156-acre development, if approved, could have paved the way for other earth-altering housing projects throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.
Evans' house is planned as a 12,785-square-foot contemporary abode, called "Leaves in the Wind," so named for the undulating green roof meant to emulate fluttering leaves. A website explains that the five houses were designed to meet the highest environmental standards by incorporating recycled and renewable materials, rainwater catchment systems, solar panels and native landscaping.
Conservation groups and homeowners in the canyons and hillsides below have largely opposed it on the grounds that, no matter how green the homes themselves might be, a project that carves out so much earth by definition is not eco-friendly.
One past critic did not speak out against the project this time. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy initially had said the development would have "unavoidable significant adverse visual and ecological impacts."
In April, however, it agreed to take a neutral position in exchange for more than $1 million in cash, consulting services and dedicated open space from the musician and the other property owners. Under the agreement, the agency would not receive that money or the other benefits unless the project wins final approval and survives any appeals or legal challenges.
Commission staffers had said Evans' plan represented a unified development, and suggested they could support two or three smaller homes clustered in a less-visible portion of the property. They also said that the property had changed hands in an effort to conceal actual ownership, and that Evans was trying to skirt environmental regulations by asking the panel to consider each home separately, rather than weigh the overall project.
Evans' team had argued that the five parcels had five distinct owners who were sharing architects, planners, consultants and project managers. Documents submitted to the commission identified the owners as Evans' family, friends and business associates, including Evans' younger sister, Gillian. In the past, the rocker's wife, Morleigh Steinberg, and the project manager also have been listed as principal owners.
Steinberg's father, Robert, spoke at Thursday's hearing, defending the project. "Morleigh and Edge have done everything known to man to respond to the commission," he said.
Evans was not at the meeting in Marina del Rey, although U2 is scheduled to perform Friday night at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.