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On Malibu City Council, surfer Skylar Peak fights waves of change

Tooling along Pacific Coast Highway in his GMC pickup, Skylar Peak scans the break at Surfrider Beach. Bella, his golden retriever-Labrador, is leashed in the truck bed, her mohawk shaded by a red, white and blue surfboard bearing the message VOTE PEAK.

As he pulls into the beach parking lot, Peak shouts “Waddup?” and waves a shaka sign at some surfer pals. In a few hours, the Malibu native will paddle out. But at the moment, he has more on his mind than nose-riding.

In April, this celluloid ideal of a waterman became the youngest person ever elected to Malibu’s City Council. His supporters are looking to Peak, who turned 28 this month, to help preserve what’s left of their community’s rural flavor. He freely voices opinions such as: “I’m not that stoked about development.”

With the prospect of more than 1 million square feet of construction looming and with the sewer-versus-septic battle continuing to rage, Malibu stands at an environmental and cultural crossroads. Some residents view development as vital to the city’s economic health. Others fret that their laid-back beach town is turning into Rodeo Drive west, with posh boutiques supplanting local shops that can’t afford rising rents.

Big-money projects are popping up all over town. Software mogul Larry Ellison is building two restaurants near the pier. A Whole Foods is coming to the Civic Center. A developer has proposed a 146-room luxury hotel on 28 vacant acres at Malibu Canyon Road and PCH.

Although many locals welcome Peak’s youthful exuberance, longtime observers say he is up against an entrenched leadership that has long been too cozy with developers. Some opponents and even friends wonder whether he’s prepared for the rigors of city governance.

“He’ll find out very quickly with this group that’s in there … it’s join us or go out by yourself,” said Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, another surfer who won a council seat on a similar slow-growth pledge but did not seek reelection.

Flashing a toothy grin under sun-tipped strawberry-blond hair, Peak swaggers into Malibu Kitchen for a late-morning coffee. Emerging in his faded black T-shirt and green sweat pants, he gives a surfer’s stink eye to the Lanvin and Missoni boutiques across the Malibu Village shopping center on Cross Creek Road.

“They don’t belong here,” he says.

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A third-generation resident, Peak hungers for the cowboy charm and what he calls the magic of the Malibu his grandparents knew, where people rode horses at surf’s edge and open space ran as far as the eye could see.

He grew up carving waves and cycling the chaparral-covered hillsides of Malibu. He attended the local public schools and graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu.

“I didn’t want to go,” he said. “I wanted to surf.”

But his father, Dusty Peak, an electrician, surfer and water quality activist, insisted.

As was his dad, Skylar is an affable fixture in town. At Malibu Country Mart, Kate Pritchett, a lifelong friend, hugs him. At Malibu Seafood, Bonnie Decker, whose family homesteaded in Malibu in the 1860s, puts Peak’s salmon lunch order on his tab.

During one of Malibu’s wildfires, Peak doused embers with John Cusack. Mike D of the Beastie Boys is “like family.” Mel Gibson’s son Milo is a buddy and co-worker at Peak Power Electric, the electrical contracting company Peak took over after his father died.

Peak also co-owns Sicky Dicky Productions, a live-music promoter, and works part time as a lifeguard at Zuma Beach. He has taught scores of children and many a celebrity how to surf. Last summer, he tutored Gerard Butler for his surfer role in the upcoming film “Of Men and Mavericks.”

He made national headlines in 2008 as one of two watermen tried on misdemeanor battery charges after mixing it up with a paparazzo who tried to photograph actor Matthew McConaughey near Point Dume, Peak’s home surf break.

The case ended in a hung jury, and Peak remains unrepentant. “I’ll always fight for the right to privacy,” he says.

Since then, Peak has honed his image, serving on the board of the Malibu Boys and Girls Club and as a local parks commissioner. He said he would love to see wealthy Malibuites buy up remaining developable land and create small parks or open space.

He expresses dismay that the canyons where he and friends used to roam are now dotted with mega-mansions, and that roads that once went on for miles are gated.

The old-Malibu way of life was associated with now-departed businesses, like Hows Market at the western end of town, where, locals recall, a child who forgot his money could buy a doughnut on credit and clerks asked regulars: “How’s your horse?”

The 17-acre Trancas Country Market that long housed Hows is now owned by aWal-Martheiress and her husband. It is undergoing renovation and expansion, with buildings made to look like barns.

Sewers and development pressures, Peak fears, could hasten the demise of the Malibu he cherishes.

Malibu formed its own government in 1991 to stave off Los Angeles County’s efforts to replace septic tanks with a sewer system — a change that locals worried would bring unfettered development. But in 2009, after years of court battles with the state over coastal pollution, the city agreed to install sewers in the Civic Center area. Peak said he would push Malibu to reconsider.

He also opposed California State Parks’ plan to reshape the polluted Malibu Lagoon to restore habitat and water quality. Peak sided with activists who contended, to no avail, that the project would destroy habitat and deplete the world-famous wave action at Surfrider. The state began the work early this month.

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As he makes the obligatory rounds of community events and meetings, Peak finds himself reluctantly trading his wetsuit for a suit of a different sort.

For the May 14 council meeting, his first as a voting member, he arrived in chambers in a dark business suit, white shirt (open at the collar, at least), a couple of days’ growth of beard — and sunglasses.

He missed his second meeting because he was surfing in Indonesia.

At the third meeting, Peak was eating his dinner on the dais as opponents of the state’s lagoon plans spoke. Fritz Gerhardt, a longtime surfer, criticized the panel for failing to do more to stop the state project. Then he sharply admonished Peak. “Mr. Skylar Peak, stop eating when we’re talking.”

After public comments ended, council members took turns speaking. Peak congratulated his neighbor Tom Schaar, 12, who in March became the first person to land a 1080 (three full rotations in the air) on a skateboard. The council had commended Schaar at the start of the meeting. “Skateboarding is an amazing sport,” Peak said. “And the lagoon is a very important thing that I’m going to have to deal with.”

A community like Malibu, with so many issues swirling, would be a serious challenge for any civic leader, said Glenn Hening, creator of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to protect the world’s oceans and beaches. Unlike Peak, the foundation supported the state’s lagoon plan.

Hening said Peak and his surfer friends have a reputation for being hostile to outsiders at Point Dume. “Somehow they never quite learned what the word ‘aloha’ means, even though they live and surf in one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” Hening said. “Let’s hope that kind of territorialism is not reflected in the votes Skylar casts on issues confronting his community.”

But others say Peak’s fresh perspective has buoyed Malibuites in search of an advocate. “It takes somebody with a different point of view to represent the younger crowd of Malibu who are growing up and having children,” said Gregorio Stephenson, executive chef at Nobu.

John Sibert, 75, a retired university professor who was reelected to the council in April, is excited about having “some younger energy” on the panel. But a newcomer like Peak, Sibert cautioned, needs to recognize that “we’re probably the most complicated little city of 13,000 in the country.”

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Peak lives in a nicely appointed double-wide trailer at the hilltop Point Dume Club. Outside his home, he rummages through an assortment of well-used wetsuits, paddles and boards to pick equipment for his afternoon outing.

From his living room couch, he can see the ocean’s sparkling whitecaps. His coffee table holds a copy of “The Art of Stand Up Paddling,” with a chapter on “Skylar, the Instructor” and glossy photos of him riding in the tube north of Malibu and wiping out at a secret spot in Indonesia.

His passions have guided his priorities. Like hanging two surfboards on the council chamber walls to honor Malibu’s competitive-surfing history. And addressing the void resulting from the departure of the beloved Papa Jack’s skate park, closed to make way for Whole Foods.

At Bluffs Park, he points to a skate park model — about the size of a skateboard — and says wryly: “That’s the biggest skate park we have in Malibu right now. If there’s anything I get done in four years, it’ll be a skate park. The kids want it.”

A few hours later, he’s in the Malibu surf, and at that moment nothing matters so much as catching a few good waves in the golden late-afternoon sun at Surfrider.

martha.groves@latimes.com


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