Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Walk in the Park

Bluffs Park Open Space is currently at the center of the 2016 Malibu City Council election debate, but not for the reasons one might think. All Photos © 2016 S. Guldimann

October in Malibu Bluffs Open Space Park offers vistas of dusty golden fields and wind-swept blue sea and sky. The meadowlarks arrived this week, from wherever they spend their summers. Cold air collects at the bottom of the ravines over night and lingers into the morning hours, offering early walkers a taste of winter and the concentrated fragrance of laurel sumac, sagebrush, and skunk musk—a sort of distillation of autumn in Malibu.

The open space is a small park—just 83 acres. One rarely encounters more than a few other visitors. You might meet a wedding party taking photos, or neighbors walking their dogs. If you are there early enough or late enough you might see a family of coyotes hunting mice in the meadow, or the shy elusive bobcat that lives in the canyon. There are almost always raptors in the dead eucalyptus trees by the highway, and in a wet year the park is full of flowers, some of them common, some rare. So how did this small, quiet place end up being at the center of a maelstrom of campaign accusations during the 2016 city council race? Let's take a look.

A field of Catalina mariposas dance in the wind at Malibu Bluffs Park Open Space. This flower, which can lie dormant for years until conditions are right and then burst into bloom resembling the butterfly it is named for, is a California species of special concern.

Although Malibu Bluffs Park is a small area, it was a top priority on the Coastal Commission's first acquisitions list in 1976, together with the Point Dume Headlands. Nearly 100 acres on the bluff were purchased by the state in 1979 with the first bond money available for coastal conservation.

The city was able to buy 10 of those acres from the state as a permanent home for our community's ball fields, after the local Little League was forced to move out of Malibu Lagoon. Through a complex deal that money was used to purchase King Gillette Ranch in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains, the ball fields got to stay on the bluff, Malibu was able to build the Michael Landon Community Center, and the remaining 83 acres of open space were transferred from State Parks to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to manage, which it did by mostly leaving the property alone, until the plan for placing campsites on the site emerged, kicking off a massive battle.

The California Coastal Commission was extremely reluctant to allow the existing ballfields to be placed in their current location, it seems unlikely that they are going to let them be doubled and placed here, no matter what they city wants:

 In the aftermath of that battle, and with a different city council at the helm in Malibu, the City of Malibu traded its 590-acre Charmlee Wilderness Park to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for Bluffs Open Space. The swap is still not complete. Both parties agreed to a five-year exchange to determine if the properties could be developed in the way desired.

For Charmlee, that means overnight camping facilities to accomodate hikers traveling the Coastal Slope Trail and also campsites for disabled parkgoers.

At Malibu Bluff Parks Open Space, the City of Malibu is seeking four baseball fields, an aquatic center, a skatepark, a dog park, an amphitheater, basketball courts, a tot lot, lawn areas, a community/visitor center and all of the necessary infrastructure to make that a reality, including ancillary structures like pool pumps, restrooms, batting cages, storage sheds, parking areas, driveways and at least one new entrance from Pacific Coast Highway.

This is the city's proposed plan for Bluffs Park Open Space. The orange dotted line indicates the ESHA—Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area—boundary. Almost all of the proposed development goes right up to that line. If the Coastal Commission required the project to meet the ESHA buffer requirement mandated by the City of Malibu's Local Coastal Program, some of the facilities planned will have to be scaled back. Here's a link to the city's ESHA designations. And here's what the city's laws say about ESHA buffer for coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitat: "New development shall provide a buffer of sufficient width to ensure that no required fuel modification area will extend into the ESHA and that no structures will be within 100 feet of the outer edge of the plants that comprise the [ESHA] plant community." 

Here's the same map with red used to mark a rough approximation of the areas the city would be limited to build in if they are required to meet the 100 feet of ESHA buffer requirement. Both entrances to the 83-acre park are either fully in ESHA or in the buffer zone. So is most of the central parking lot and the entire skatepark. 
A master plan has been developed that reconfigures the city's existing 10-acre Bluffs Park and incorporates a nearly two-acre parcel that will be donated by the developer of the adjacent five-house subdivision, as well as mapping out the amenities the city is seeking to construct in the open space portion of the park. 

The riparian habitat on the edge of the current Bluffs Park parking lot is problematic. It would become the driveway for the central mesa's athletic complex in the city's plan, but is 100 percent ESHA, which means it can't be developed under the city's own Local Coastal Program. It seems unlikely that the Parks and Recreation Commission is going to get everything on its wish list without a struggle. Even if the Coastal Commission approves the plan as is, the Sierra Club has already gone on record opposing the city's plan. Their argument is that the park was purchased by the people of the state of California with bond money earmarked expressly for open space and that a municipal recreation complex does not meet that definition. Appeals and lawsuits appear inevitable.

The plan includes relocating and replacing the Michael Landon Center with a new, larger visitor/community center, moving the two existing baseball diamonds to the central section of the open space park and adding  a Pony League field and a softball field, and rearranging the current field area to accommodate three soccer or mixed use fields.

You can see that the city's plan follows the outlines of the Conservancy's camping proposal areas fairly closely, but with one major difference. Campsites don't require the same ESHA and fire setbacks that other types of development do. Further complicating the issue are those little blue, yellow and green squares, which represent the location of special concern species that require extra protections. The blue dots represent the mariposa lilies that are a special concern species and the tot lot and lawn area proposed by the city are practically on top of them. The tot lot is also on top of a Chumash cultural resource. Somebody didn't bother to look at the records before plunking down amenities. 

The problem with this plan is that when the Conservancy wanted to place campsites at Bluffs Park, the city went through great lengths to argue that the whole park was Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, where nothing can be built. The city attorney has stated that the park is ESHA on the record to the Coastal Commission and the city's official overlay map showing ESHA supports that.

This is the official ESHA overlay map for the section of Malibu from Corral Canyon to the Malibu Pier. Bluffs Park is the green blob under the word "Coast." The only parts that aren't mapped as ESHA are the current ballfields and the portion of the western mesa where the aquatic facility is proposed. 

Update: A reader pointed out that a much stricter 200-foot ESHA buffer is required for mapped ESHA, according to section 4.4.2 of the city's Local Implementation Zone

Now that the city wants to build amenities on the park the argument is that there isn't that much ESHA after all. However, ESHA isn't the only concern. Bluffs Park Open Space has plenty of interesting geologic features, including numerous landslide areas and a large section of the Malibu Coast Fault. 

That big black line is the Malibu Coast Fault. It's the reason GE, which owned the property in the 1960s, was never able to build a facility on the site, and why plans for an Alcoa tract development were scraped. The orange lines are landslides. The arrows show the direction of the slides. The notation Tm refers to the Monterey Formation that is poking up through the alluvial soil. The mark that looks like an upside-down teeter-totter in the middle of the circle around the Monterey Formation indicates the direction and angle of the upright bedding—80 degrees in this location. The presence of Tv—Conejo Volcanics, and Tr—Trancas Formation (mostly marine shales) intruding through the alluvial soils hints at a turbulent past caused by ancient floods and deformation from the earthquake fault. This image is from the SMMC's Environmental Impact Report for the site and shows the proposed campsites. The city has not yet completed its EIR.

Here are a couple of photos of the bluff-side landslide areas for a visual reference. No arrows or dotted lines needed.

Now let's take a look at this quote from a letter to the editor that ran in a recent issue of the Malibu Times:

"...If the slate is elected, they will constitute a majority vote of council and, as promised, will kill any community-supported plans for Bluffs Park for the next four years. By then, the swap with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy will have expired and the conservancy will once again have ownership and control of Bluffs Park.

Most residents are unaware that in 2010, the Coastal Commission approved the conservancy’s plans to add 35 campsites to Bluffs Park. Therefore, by “stopping the swap” the “Band of Three,” commonly referred to as the slate, will have succeeded in eliminating much-needed sports fields and other recreational amenities for all Malibu and, instead, provided us with a regional campground in the heart of our beloved town. What a horrible thought."

The slate refers to City Council candidates Skylar Peak, Rick Mullen and Jefferson Wagner.  The author of this letter appears to be unaware that the Coastal Commission, not the city council, will have the final say on what can built at Bluffs Park. He also appears unaware that the city, not the Conservancy, has the final say on whether the park can be used for campsites. 

Perhaps he is also unaware that Rick Mullen played a major role in the incredibly difficult legal battle to ensure that the city retained the right to make that determination. You can read about it in Rick's own words here

Bluffs Park has become an increasingly popular destination for wedding parties. This couple and their photographer probably didn't pick this park for its recreational facilities.

The letter quoted above is just one of several spurious attacks on these three candidates over Bluffs Park. None of these letters mention the property's constraints, or that even if the ballfields and the skatepark are off the table because of the environmental constraints, the city council could still decide that the prospect of athletic facilities on the western mesas is worth pursuing. It's even possible that the city might keep the park as a—what a novel concept—open space, and seek a flatter, less controversial, less geologically active and less environmentally sensitive area to build the other athletic facilities.

You know what would happen if the swap were to fall apart? And no, the answer isn't "the end of the world" the way the letter writer and his friends seem to think. Instead, Malibu would take back Charmlee Wilderness Park, one of the most beautiful places in the Santa Monica Mountains, with 590 acres of ancient oak groves, spectacular ocean views, dramatic rock formations, and miles of trails. I can think of worse things. If the swap is made permanent, the Conservancy has plans to use Charmlee for a campground, but deed restrictions that run with the land ensure that the areas not used for camping will remain wilderness.

There is nothing wrong with recreational facilities. Every community needs places were residents of all ages can participate in activities like organized sports and art and enrichment classes, but the location for those amenities needs to be appropriate. It's great the city has taken the time to collect community input on Bluffs, and that they are currently going through the same process at our newly acquired Trancas Fields Park, but the land and the resources on it must ultimately dictate the use. At Bluffs, one could argue that we appear to have created a wish list full of wonderful things but forgot to start with the physical constraints of the site. It's like buying a fantastic piece of furniture at an estate sale and only realizing that it doesn't fit through the front door when you get it home. That's why an environmental impact report and the Coastal Commission approval process is so important. And it is also why electing the right city council to represent us is critical. 

There are currently two baseball fields and a multi-use/soccer field at Malibu Bluffs Park. The desire for more recreational facilities goes all the way back to the 1960s, when Malibu (it wasn't a city yet) was promised Little League fields next to the proposed nuclear power plant in Corral Canyon, and a swimming pool heated with the sea water that would be pumped in to cool the reactor, too (what could possibly have gone wrong?). 

The author of the letter is correct when he states that the "Band of Three" would ensure a council majority. From the perspective of conservationists and keepers of Malibu's history, this would be a good thing, because Peak, Mullen, and Wagner have not only vowed to uphold the Mission Statement, they all have a documented history of actually doing so that has been chronicled in the local media.

This beautiful vista includes many of the elements that make turning Bluffs Parks into a recreation center a problem: landslides, erosion, the protected mariposa lilies, precarious cliffs, and the earthquake fault. It also reveals another major problem. That green field in the left corner is the western mesa. It's completely isolated from the rest of the park by Marie Canyon. To build the proposed aquatic center there would require a new entrance off of Pacific Coast Highway at John Tyler Way. An entrance located right on the edge of ESHA, within the 100-foot ESHA buffer. There was a time when the Valley of Yosemite National Park had tennis courts and other recreational facilities. The culture has changed as the park service has realized the focus needs to be on nature. Perhaps its time Malibu grows up, too.

Regardless of who is elected in November, the Malibu City Council, not the Conservancy, has the final say on camping at Malibu Bluffs Park. Even if the swap doesn't come to pass and the city reclaims Charmlee and hands Bluffs back to the Conservancy, any camping facilities that the SMMC proposes for Bluffs Park would have to be approved by the city. 

In both scenarios, the California Coastal Commission has a key role in determining what can be built, and because the proposed development falls under the designation of "public works project" it can be appealed to the Coastal Commission if residents or environmental organizations have concerns that they feel were not adequately addressed by the city. 

We've talked a lot about the Malibu Mission Statement this election cycle, but this is exactly the kind of situation that document is intended to address. Does the proposed development meet the goals of the Mission Statement? If it doesn't, can it be rethought, redesigned, scaled back? For too long, the city has relied on variances to make things fit, and it has fallen to residents and environmental organizations to appeal these patched together projects to the Coastal Commission. 

City officials discuss their plans for the park shortly after the swap was announced. They are standing in the middle of California perennial grassland habitat, on top of the hill created by the earthquake fault out of stone from the Monterey Formation. This group was comprised entirely of well-meaning city officials with an enthusiasm for sports. No one thought to include scientists in the discussion. Taking the environmental and geologic constraints of the park more seriously might have helped prevent headaches with the Coastal Commission and the environmental community later. 

Camping may not belong on Bluffs Park, but it's time we stopped thinking of it as "horrible." It's especially discouraging when appointed officials cling to this mindset. A city-owned campground would be a good way to ensure low cost visitor serving amenities are available in Malibu on our terms, with no fires and a year-round live in camp host to keep an eye on things. In other coastal communities this has been a successful way to meet the needs of visitors and even raise revenue. Maybe we aren't there yet, but it would be nice if this was a conversation we could eventually have. 

The statement about "eliminating much-needed sports fields and other recreational amenities for all Malibu and, instead, provided us with a regional campground in the heart of our beloved town" isn't based in fact. It's just election scare mongering. That's why its so important to listen to what the candidates say, and more importantly what they have actually done, not what's said about them.

Here's a reminder of what makes Bluffs Park such an incredibly special place for residents and visitors, and why the City of Malibu's Mission Statement proclaims Malibu 
"a unique land and marine environment and residential community whose citizens have historically evidenced a commitment to sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect that environment and lifestyle, and to preserve unaltered natural resources and rural characteristics."

Friday, October 21, 2016

High Stakes

Traffic and development continue to dominate the Malibu election discussion.

In a recent editorial, Malibu Times editor Arnold York wrote: 

"One of the problems I always have with city council elections is that there are truly not many issues on the table. I don’t think there is anyone in Malibu that endorses rampant development nor can I ever remember anyone advocating it. Of course, what I might call normal expansion, you might call rampant development."

One reason we haven't seen rampant development in the Civic Center area is because there have been too many constraints to overcome. Many local activists have expressed the concern that the city's new wastewater treatment plant will soon remove developers' biggest obstacle. 

This is an official City of Malibu map of past and future development in the Malibu Civic Center area. M is for sale, O sold last year, the owners of S and L sued the city over Measure R, and Q is already approved to become a 110,000-square-foot shopping center. These properties represent a lot of potential change for a small area.

Another reason is that the impact of development is cumulative. Unless there's a massive project that brings large numbers of the community together in opposition, bit by bit development—often described as "piecemealing," can go unnoticed. A setback variance here, a height variance there, and before anyone realizes what's happened we find ourselves with the Great Wall of Malibu instead of a view of the coast. It's hard to know when it happened. One day the open space is there, the next it isn't.

Along large stretches of Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu development is so dense one would never know the ocean is right on the other side of the road. The situation is somewhat better on the western end of town, but the proliferation of massive landscape plantings, like ficus hedges, block the view as efficiently as eastern Malibu's garage doors and massive houses.

It seems to be an unspoken law of the universe that once a city is established it seeks to grow. Cities have planning departments not conservation departments, and planners have much in common with hair stylists—always trying to give you a cutting edge (so to speak) haircut when all you want is the ends trimmed. However, hair grows back, the environment doesn’t. And the burden of environmental oversight in Malibu has remained the responsibility of the citizens, as the city officials wield their metaphorical scissors in what often seems a determined effort to give Malibu the planner's version of a mullet.

If all one had to go on was the strip of Malibu that lines PCH one would not give these "27 miles of scenic beauty" a second glance.

What does it say about eastern Malibu that beach access has been systematically reduced from this:

This 1950 aerial photo of Malibu Road from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library shows modest houses and long stretches of open shoreline.

To this?

Today, the same stretch of coast is wall-to-wall houses. Every time a permit is issued for a rebuild, the replacement house is bigger than the one it replaced, as developers attempt to push the limits of the city's building codes to the breaking point. Yes, property owners have rights, but the city has a responsibility, too, not just to ensure that plans meet code requirements but that they comply fully with local coastal planning requirements WITHOUT excessive variances.

That wall of houses leaves little room for the actual beach. Visitors who navigate their way to east Malibu beach accessways get to enjoy a patch of perpetually damp sand under a row of majestically cantilevered decks. 

Oh look! A public beach accessway!

Alas, the illusion that the stairway leads to the splendors of nature is rapidly dispelled.

ou do, however, get to enjoy a worm's eye view of the underneath of other people's houses. That monster in the distance was under construction when I took this photo. It replaced a modest house that did not intrude dramatically into the ocean.

 Malibu journalist Hans Laetz once described Malibu’s current system of balances like this:

 “If the current system is working, it is only because a few dedicated folks are continuously playing CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] whack-a-mole down at City Hall.”

Even on a perfect day when the water is clear and clean and the sun is golden, and the historic Malibu Pier looks like a picture postcard the vision is marred by Malibu's version of urban sprawl. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann

Here's a closer look. Pacific Coast Highway turned into a wall of stucco one project at a time. 

This is the same view in the 1940s. The long white building was the shed for the Ridge railroad.

Grassroots efforts have curtailed many major Malibu projects, ranging from the marina and the freeway, to the county's plans for a city of 200,000, but residents just don't have the resources to go up against every cash grab proposed by shortsighted development interests. 

Property owners have the right to develop their property, but they aren't entitled to excessive variances that allow them to impinge on public views and key environmental resources, and that sense of  entitlement is something that has been overly relied on for decades. 

The main objection to the so-called "Whole Foods in the Park" shopping center development was the number of variances granted to the developer, including the infamous vertical landscaping in place of open space. As  projects emerge for new Civic Center development will the variances for height and density granted earlier developers end up becoming expected entitlements? The Malibu Bay Company's "76,000-square-foot "Sycamore Village" is planned for the property on the corner of Stuart Ranch Road and Civic Center Way. 
The 110,000 square-foot La Paz shopping center already has its permits. The 3.5-acre Knapp property sold last year. It can support 23,000 square feet of development and isn't subject to Measure R. The 6.5-acre Ioki property, next to city hall, is currently on the market and could be developed with up to 42,000 square feet. Change is coming. Will this part of the community ultimately end up looking like an extension of Malibu's Great Wall?   

Are we going to end up with more of this?

This monster was forced through right before cityhood in the late 1980s. It's a prime example of what Malibu shouldn't be, but that doesn't stop developers from dreaming up similar projects.

Where did this thing come from and why did anyone think it was a good idea? 
The county isn't to blame for this one—it cropped up recently. When I was small child my dad used to take me to to buy African violets here for Mother's Day. It was Bowman Nursery back then, a private house with a greenhouse behind it where hundreds of flowers grew in neat purple and pink profusion. It changed from a small empty house to a giant empty office building seemingly overnight. It's a double shame, since it is right next door to the Malibu Synagogue and Jewish Center, a beautiful building that is designed to blend into the landscape.

Or can we maintain the qualities described in the city's Mission Statement that make Malibu a "unique land and marine environment and residential community" ?

Once one escapes from Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu really is 27 miles of scenic beauty, or at least maybe 19 miles of scenic beauty and seven or eight of obnoxious beach houses and commercial development. The two biggest challenges for Malibu moving forward will be to prevent "infilling," or changes to the city's zoning that permit higher density development and out of scale overdevelopment, and finding ways to retire commercial property and maintain open space.

Maybe the question we should be asking this year's city council candidates isn't what they stand for but what they have stood against.

That's the last empty lot on PCH in eastern Malibu, the last glimpse of ocean and horizon. Is it destined to become another section of the Great Wall, or are there other alternatives for Malibu's future?

It is difficult to focus on local issues when all of the attention is on a national election that resembles a cross between Monty Python and a post-apocalyptic horror film, but this November 8 Malibu residents will elect a city council that will weigh in on many key development issues. Let's make sure that the people we select are committed to the Malibu Mission Statement, so Malibu doesn't accidentally end up resembling a suburb of this place:

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Write Stuff

It looks peaceful, but that is not an ordinary Malibu sunrise, it was the morning of the 2007 Corral Fire, and a reminder that Malibu can switch from paradise to inferno in a heartbeat. Malibu's elected officials may be called on to deal with fire, flood, earthquake or storm, in addition to every day issues. The Malibu City Council election isn't a popularity contest or a game show contest. The newly formed City of Malibu was nearly bankrupted in its infancy by the catastrophic 1993 Old Topanga Fire, which raced through Malibu leaving devastation in its wake. The Corral Fire was our most recent city disaster Many newer Malibu residents have never experienced the rougher side of life on this coast. Our elected officials always have to be prepared for the worst. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann

Malibu certainly must never become a locality for the get-rich-schemes of honkey-tonk promoters who have nothing more than a yawning interest in civic pride—or the scavenger who sees a chance to trade off the name for the sake of a few dollars.

There is no better time than right now to face the fact that we must organize to achieve unity of purpose in all our civic endeavors. If we wait too long, we may well be too late.

—Malibu Times editorial, October 11, 1946

Dear Reader,

If you had to go by the letters to the editor sections of the local newspapers you would never guess Malibu’s election season has shifted into high gear and that the battle for votes in the six person race for three seats on the Malibu City Council is raging in the aisles of the grocery stores and at the farmers market. 

Former Malibu Surfside News editor Anne Soble often received so many election season letters that they would spill over from page 4 to fill every empty space, sometimes ending up jostling with the classifieds for space on the last page.

The war of words has been waged in every Malibu city council election. Why is it so quiet out there this time? With the exception of curmudgeonly grumbles from a couple of octogenarian town elders and a polite epistle praising the candidates for their decorum, the silence on campaign issues is deafening. 

Malibu's night skies attract stargazers from all over Los Angeles, like this group of amateur astronomers at Malibu Bluffs Park, but light pollution is beginning to impact the view. A dark skies ordinance is one of several environmental campaign issues this year. Activists would also like to see Malibu tighten loopholes in its Local Coastal Program to better protect all natural resources. Which candidates are most likely to support this endeavor? Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann

Perhaps the rise of social media is to blame for the silence in the letters column, although even the online comment section of the one local paper with that feature is surprisingly empty. There are the usual anonymous developers sparing half-heartedly with a handful of local fire eaters, but that's about it. 

Readers of the current Surfside News can perhaps be excused for not knowing who the newest editor is or how to reach her. The paper restructured recently and has brought in many new faces. But everyone knows where to find the Malibu Times’ editor, Arnold York.

One of the candidates forums included a discussion of sea level rise that focused primarily on artificial reefs as a potential solution for sand loss, but what about other sea level issues like salt water intrusion, tidal surge, and wave damage? And how about issues like coastal armoring, view corridors and public access? Photo @ 2016 S. Guldimann

Before Malibu became a city the opinion sections were a key forum for local issues—sometimes the only opportunity for residents to have their concerns heard. And while politicians often waffle on about "progress," some of the earliest Malibu letters to the editor could be dusted off and recycled today. 

“We all want Malibu to be the most beautiful community possible, yet how can it be with sudden death racing down our highway?” asked Nella Archer in a letter to the editor of the Malibu Times dated January 27, 1947.

Safety on Pacific Coast Highway has been a major concern dating back to the era when the road was Roosevelt Highway. Some of the earliest issue-based letters to the editor of the original Malibu Times, which began covering local news in 1946, pertain to highway safety. It's not surprising that it's a major campaign issue once again. Photo: Malibu Library

“My eyes are opened now to needs which are greater than just hotels,” a letter written by developer Esther Sterkin states. “We must have a complete resort community where those who will, may, escape from cities, and raise their families close to nature. For these permanent, solid citizens we must have schools, churches, theatre, shops, recreation centers for our children (small and adolescent), and all the other necessities for a high-level community...Then, of course, the resort buildings and facilities, gorgeous landscaping, exclusive sumptuous hotels, modern beach cottages, and apartment houses, also housing divisions for the men who would be employed in the area...I am impatient to see a beginning."

Shopping malls, hotels, recreation facilities, low-incoming housing? Sound familiar? Except this letter was written in 1950.

Development and highway safety remain two of Malibu's top issues, but there are more recent concerns—things that early residents could never have imagined: escalating issues with homeless and drug use; the impact of short-term home rentals and the one-night-only party crowd they attract; drug rehab facilities that transform neighborhoods into hospital zones; global warming and sea level rise; and the estimated 15 million visitors who flocked to Malibu's beaches and mountains in the past year.

The proposed "Whole Foods in the Park" shopping mall planned for this quiet field provided the flashpoint for the grassroots Measure R movement. All of the candidates are running on a slow growth platform. However, there are major differences: three candidates actively participated in and helped lead the grassroots Preserve Malibu movement, a fourth wasn't involved in the campaign but supported Measure R,  the fifth appears not to have publicly stated their views on the ballot initiative, and the sixth vehemently opposed the measure. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann

When Malibu was fighting for cityhood, the letters column in both papers was a major battleground that sometimes spilled over into the Los Angeles Times’ letters section. It was also sometimes a literary experience. You might find a pithy response from mystery writer Ross Thomas, a politely devastating retort by legendary screenwriter Philip Dunne, or a dryly humorous opinion penned by actor turned journalist Paul Mantee.

Rodenticide and pesticide use in Malibu remain a major issue, with activists pushing hard for a citywide ban. While all of the candidates have stated that they oppose pesticide use, which candidates have a history of supporting the ban? Which are most likely to support the ordinance if elected? Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann

Ross Thomas was so quiet in person that you had to listen hard to hear him. It was worth the effort. Before settling down to the mystery novelist’s life he had traveled the world: Africa, Asia, Europe. He’d lived in London and Manhattan, rubbed elbows with the entire literary scene of the 1960s. His first novel Cold War Swap, won the Edgar Allen Poe award for best first mystery novel in 1966. As an activist and letter writer he was fierce and deadly.

Malibu is nearly 23 miles long and includes more coastline than any other municipality in Southern California, but it's this tiny section of land that is ground zero for local controversy. Critics have warned that more than one million square feet of development could eventually be squeezed into the Civic Center area. The fate of many of the red parcels, zoned Commercial, could be decided by the city council members elected in November. With the Civic Center sewer under construction, some development interests are already pushing for mixed use development, which would increase density. The triangular section at the center—Legacy Park—is the only undeveloped parcel that is not in play. 

Philip Dunne, also a quiet man, was a ferocious fighter for social justice on a national level—he co-founded the Committee for the First Amendment with William Wyler and John Huston, and fought for the rights of the entertainment industry professionals who found themselves on the Hollywood Blacklist. He also fought for small local issues, including Malibu cityhood, which he passionately supported. 

Paul Mantee was another energetic Malibu activist. Beneath the tough guy exterior lived a keen intelligence and a wry wit. He wrote a column in the Malibu Times for years and could always be counted on for a witty response on local issues in the letters section. 

Yard signs and mailers are all useful in an election, but letters go much further, offering a forum for questions and observations. In a year when everyone is being snowed under in a blizzard of local, state, and national election mailers, letters offer a forum that may actually reach that rare and elusive being, the undecided voter.  

Malibu Bluffs Park Open Space, top, and the newly acquired Trancas Fields, are both hot topics. The candidates elected next month will help determine the future for both parks.

The 19th century French novelist and social activist Emile Zola changed history with a letter. He was threatened with a year in prison and a 3000-Franc fine for a letter he wrote in support of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French war hero who was charged with treason. Zola was forced to flee to England to escape the fallout, but the letter, famously beginning with the accusation "j’accuse," generated a groundswell of support for the wrongly imprisoned Dreyfus, and ultimately changed history.

Malibu is a small town at heart, one that comes together when faced with adversity, like the 1979 Big Rock landslide that closed PCH for months. It's helpful to remember that during campaign season. Image: Evening Outlook

If you, dear reader, feel strongly about this election, if you have questions for the candidates, or comments to make on their campaign promises, or a response to a letter someone else wrote, take a minute to act on that thought. Let’s keep the letter writing tradition alive in Malibu. Who knows, it could even change the course of history. Malibu election outcomes are sometimes decided by just a few votes. Your letter could be the catalyst that decides an undecided voter.

Why not write a letter to an editor today? 

Malibu Times: or

Malibu Surfside News: Lauren Finkler:

And, as always, feel free to leave us your thoughts in the comments section. But be nice. The spirit of May Knight Rindge is keeping a watchful eye on all of us.