Two major development projects near Topanga—one in Malibu on Sweetwater Mesa below Piuma Road, the other in lower Tuna Canyon, have received major setbacks in court.
The controversial Edge development project in Malibu has attracted national attention because it pitted David Evans, guitarist for the band U2, who goes by the name “The Edge,” against the Sierra Club and conservationists.
For nearly 15 years, Evans has sought to build a five-house subdivision and access road on 155 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains, drawing opposition almost from the moment he purchased the property in 2005 for $9 million.
Opponents have accused the musician-turned-real-estate-developer of ignoring the Local Coastal Program for the Santa Monica Mountains, violating the Coastal Act and the California Environmental Quality Act.
The California Coastal Commission rejected a 2011 proposal for the development, which called for five nearly 10,000-square-foot houses to be built along the ridgeline, with a nearly half-mile of road that would require 164 reinforced concrete caissons, buried more than 50 feet deep, because it would have to be built over a landslide area.
Evans finally received approval from the commission in 2015 for a revised project with buildings that were eight percent smaller and located off the ridgeline in a more compact arrangement.
The Sierra Club sued on the basis that the project violated the Coastal Act, and that Los Angeles County, not the Coastal Commission, should have been responsible for issuing the Coastal Development Permit. They lost in 2017, but an appellate court reversed that ruling last month. Evans is expected to appeal to the California Superior Court, but it seems likely that he will be faced with only two options: apply to Los Angeles County for a permit and go through the entire process, including an environmental impact report, or walk away from the project.
Conservationists hope it will be the latter.
Evans has complained that the battle over the development has had a negative impact on his image as an environmentalist and humanitarian. His critics suggest that donating the land for open space would go a long way towards erasing the damage.
TUNA CANYON DEVELOPER DENIED
Closer to Topanga, a subdivision on 417 acres of land once set aside for open space is headed to a jury trial. A notice of ruling was filed last month in favor of the Mountains Restoration Trust (MRT). The judge denied the developer’s motion for summary judgment in the complicated fight over development on land that was once donated to the conservation organization by another celebrity, John Paul DeJoria, founder and president of Paul Mitchell Hair Care Systems.
DeJoria sold the property to the MRT and the California Coastal Conservancy in 2001, for $1.4 million, approximately 10 percent of the appraised value of $13 million.
As part of the deal, DeJoria entered into an agreement with the two conservation organizations that placed deed restrictions on the land, insuring that it would receive protection as open space, and prohibiting future sale or land-swaps.
“It’s a gift precious beyond words,” said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the Oakland-based California State Coastal Conservancy, when the property was dedicated open space in 2002. “It’s not only beautiful, it’s pristine.”
In 2008, the MRT defaulted on the loan secured by the property and the lien holder foreclosed on the property, forcing a sale. In April 2008, 12 parcels in lower Tuna Canyon were sold through foreclosure to Canyon Vineyard Estates (CVE), LLC, the current property owner.
Since 2017, Reid Breitman, the real estate developer behind the LLC, has sought to amend the Local Coastal Program for the City of Malibu and Los Angeles County to eliminate the open space zoning designation and pave the way for 20-acre estates on the property.
Superior Court Judge Elaine W. Mandel did not accept the developer’s arguments, responding that Breitman must have been aware he was purchasing property with deed restrictions and an open space designation.
“[There is] evidence CVE had constructive notice of the easement, given that it paid vastly less for the land after foreclosure ($1.3 million) than it would have expected to pay for unencumbered land that could be developed ($13 million),” the ruling states. The court record also notes that DeJoria “would not have the power to subordinate the conservation easement, because he was not—nor could he be under the statutory scheme— the holder of the easement, as a private party cannot hold a conservation easement.
The court found that “there is a triable issue of fact as to whether a conservation easement, which would not be subordinated by the Subordination Agreement, was created.”
The trial is scheduled for February 10, 2020.