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 dedicated open space from the musician and his partners.
In a deal with the 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, 97 acres of 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, which 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 on a 3-2 vote, 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."
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, one of two conservancy board members who voted against the deal, said she didn't want to lose the chance to throw the agency's weight against a project that is "so overwhelmingly against the principles of good planning and development."
Supporters of the deal said they did not believe that the conservancy's change in position would necessarily sway the Coastal Commission. But if the homes are approved, supporters said, the area will gain open space it would not otherwise have as well as key segments of the long-sought Coastal Slope Trail.
"It's clear as day that this is a trade-off," said Paul Edelman, deputy director of the conservancy. "If the project is approved, these great benefits come to the public."
Edelman said that a representative for the Edge approached the conservancy last year and proposed a benefits package, and that the terms evolved over several months.
Don Schmitz, a Malibu-based development consultant who represents Evans, would provide $250,000 in trail design and acquisition services for the conservancy if the project was ultimately approved.
In a statement, Schmitz said the deal would expand public access to the area and "dedicate nearly 100 acres of the property owners' land to open space in perpetuity."
Evans' proposed compound ran into controversy earlier this year when the Coastal Commission accused him of trying to skirt environmental regulations by concealing who owns the property. The commission alleged that the musician and his associates attempted to make it more difficult for the agency to limit the number of homes on the site by presenting the project as five independently owned parcels instead of one coordinated project.
The commission holds final authority over the Edge's project and is scheduled to consider it as early as June.