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Malibu’s royalty squabbles over growth

Actor/director Rob Reiner is sponsoring Measure R to control growth. Opponents say the measure could have unintended consequences.
(Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times)

Dueling millionaires and ex-mayors. Foaming mad celebrities. Cries of corruption. Stolen campaign signs. Mayhem in City Council chambers.

Good Lord, you’ve gotta love Malibu, which finds itself at war over a November ballot measure that proposes to put a chokehold on development and save Shangri-La from ruination.

If they don’t do SOMETHING, proponents argued at a meeting last week, the most PRECIOUS place on Earth could end up looking like CALABASAS!

Do you hear that, Calabasas? Not only are you named after a gourd, but you’re being sullied by the beautiful people over the hill.

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In some ways, what’s happening in the Bu is a typical community battle over growth, development and traffic. It’s the same story in hundreds of towns.

Except that in those other places, you don’t go to a slow-growth rally headlined by producer-director Rob Reiner, with Dick Van Dyke in the audience, Doors drummer John Densmore sitting next to you, and lots of buzzing about a $100,000 campaign donation from Victoria Principal, who never saw feuding this rancorous while starring in “Dallas.”

Already, total spending on the initiative in the town of 13,000 has surpassed $500,000, the vast majority in support of the measure. Donations have rolled in from moguls and luminaries Tom Hanks, James Cameron, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

If there’s one place in America where there’s enough money and clout to slow growth, it may be Malibu. This is a town that rejected a sewer system for years to limit building, despite evidence suggesting that septic tanks were fouling the beaches.

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Briefly, here’s how Measure R came to be:

Reiner lives in Brentwood, but has long had a home in Malibu too, and he tells me he would like to settle there one day. Except that he can’t get in or out of the place on PCH for all the traffic.

That’s partly because of all the high rollers with two homes 10 miles apart from each other, one could argue, but I digress. The point is that Reiner and many others are tired of the traffic and the growth, and he says City Hall doesn’t seem inclined to control either, so he sponsored an initiative the city labeled Measure R, as in Reiner.

If Measure R passes, voters would essentially become city planners. They would be able to weigh in on any commercial development bigger than 20,000 square feet, and chain stores would be limited to 30% of the space in new shopping centers.

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So what’s so bad about that?

For the answer, let’s go to the public face of the No on R campaign. That would be none other than Steve Soboroff, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and former chief executive of the massive Playa Vista development.

“I think Rob Reiner is a good guy who’s trying to do the right thing in the wrong way,” said Soboroff, who, like Reiner, won’t be able to vote on R, because he lives in Pacific Palisades.

Soboroff argues that Measure R is “deeply flawed,” would inadvertently make more development possible and could actually increase the number of chain stores and expose the city to costly lawsuits.

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That’s a lot of malarkey, says Reiner. To which Soboroff said:

“He won two Emmys for fiction.”

He was talking about Reiner playing Archie Bunker’s lefty son-in-law on “All in the Family.”

But the Meathead had a good comeback.

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If critics are claiming Measure R will lead to more, rather than less, development, then why are developers opposing it?

Reiner also suggests Soboroff’s opposition might have something to do with the fact that he’s got a dog in the race. Soboroff owns property near the Civic Center, with plans for a 25,000-square-foot Whole Foods that would need voter approval under Measure R.

Yes, said Soboroff, he wants to see a Whole Foods on his property along with a garden and a playground for disabled kids. Is that so horrible? A Whole Foods might actually reduce traffic, he said, because Malibu residents won’t have to caravan out of the Bu to do their shopping.

More important, Soboroff said, the measure is so badly conceived that it could result in an even larger project on his property.

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“I could add 67% more square footage if Measure R passes,” Soboroff said.

Malibu City Atty. Christi Hogin told me the measure does have a couple of unintended problems and could result in legal challenges by property owners as well as a higher percentage of chain stores than is currently allowed in existing shopping centers.

But to supporters of Measure R, that interpretation is par for the course in a city controlled by a pro-growth coterie. Reiner’s crew dug up emails suggesting that Hogin was in cahoots with opponents of Measure R, an allegation she flat-out denies.

Meanwhile, residents cried conspiracy after “Yes on R” signs were confiscated by city contractors in what the city manager called a mistake. A shouting match ensued at Monday’s council meeting, with the Malibu Times reporting that a heckler was ejected while another called city officials “a gang of thieves.”

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At Monday’s town hall with Reiner, only one person spoke in opposition to R, and he was pretty much run out of the room. Another opponent, lawyer Max Gorby, quietly told me that he thinks Malibu has a strong record in controlling development and adding park space, and R simply isn’t needed.

Au contraire, said Van Dyke.

“This is long, long overdue,” the actor told me, and without it, Malibu “could become unlivable.”

By week’s end, Reiner and Soboroff were launching contentious emails at each other, trying to iron out the terms of a debate that would be moderated by KCAL-TV’s Dave Bryan and yours truly.

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The future of Paradise is at stake, and I stand ready to serve.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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