U2's The Edge finds conservancy's price

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The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy softens its opposition to the rocker's plans for an exclusive development on a Malibu ridge in exchange for $750,000.

By Steve Lopez, LA Times

Let's have yet another round of applause for the fabulous, long-running Malibu morality play starring the eco-conscious U2 guitarist and international humanitarian who calls himself The Edge. After five years, it just keeps getting better.

In the latest act, The Edge's considerable entourage of lawyers, lobbyists, flacks and assorted rabble have struck a sweet deal with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy that has the locals in a dither.

In 2009, the conservancy acted as a noble steward of the public interest when it slammed the colony that The Edge and his associates want to build atop a prominent undeveloped ridgeline near Malibu. The conservancy took the position that, no matter how "green" five houses with access roads might be, such a huge project would have "unavoidable significant adverse visual and ecological impacts."

But two weeks ago, in a move that reminds us everything is for sale, the conservancy back-pedaled, voting to adopt a position of neutrality on the proposal.

All it took was a $750,000 cash offer from The Edge and his cohorts that would enable the conservancy to purchase land, along with other considerations, including an easement across the properties to extend the Coastal Slope Trail.

"Money talks," read the headline on an irate letter to the Malibu Times. "Selling out," said another.

On Thursday, Joe Edmiston was bristling. He's the director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and a man with a long record of controversial deals struck with developers who agree to donate park land.

Edmiston sent out a defensive email to his staff responding to a story in the Malibu Surfside News by Anne Soble, who skewered Edmiston in a story headlined, "Has the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Lost Its Edge?"

In his email, Edmiston referred to the "chest-beating" of "holier than thou" critics. He said people will one day be grateful for the trail extension, which would have the "best blue water views in Southern California," and "a scenic vista otherwise only experienced by those fortunate enough to have multi-million dollar houses facing the ocean."

It's true The Edge offered a little sweeter deal this time than he did in January when the conservancy board voted against the development. But there might have been a more important difference in last month's 3-to-2 vote in support of the proposal: This time out, three board members who voted against The Edge last time didn't show up.

Hmmmmmmm. Was a fix in?

Not as far as I can tell. I spoke with each of the three, and they all had other commitments that sounded legit. Craig Sap, Elizabeth Cheadle and Woody Smeck said they're not sure how they would have voted the second time around because they hadn't studied the revised deal.

But is this any way to protect the mountains? A critical decision is made based on which trustees show up?

I had a long chat with Edmiston, and he did make a few decent points in defense of the deal. As he noted, the conservancy has no authority to approve or reject The Edge's proposal. That'll be in the hands of the California Coastal Commissioners (whose staff opposes the project for multiple reasons and has accused The Edge's people of trying to skirt environmental rules by confusing the issue of who would own the other four houses).

But The Edge's handlers already acknowledged to me that they've been lobbying coastal commissioners, and they -- not the commission staff -- will ultimately decide the matter. In politics, anything can happen, especially when you've got a multimillionaire celebrity paying lots of people a vast fortune to get his way in the end.

So Edmiston wanted to cover himself. If the Coastal Commission caves under all that pressure, or if it rejects the proposal but The Edge wins a legal challenge, Edmiston will have his payday. The agreement will only be executed, though, if The Edge ultimately builds his castles in the clouds.

"We hedged our bets," Edmiston said. And, he argued with a logic I found hard to follow, the conservancy didn't withdraw its original objections from the record.

In addition to the $750,000 to acquire land and build the trail, the conservancy got $250,000 worth of trail design services and negotiated land-use restrictions and open-space easements.

Edmiston is right -- one day, some people might be grateful this deal was struck.

But it was a deal with the devil, and it provides cover for coastal commissioners, who can now vote for the project and say, hey, why not? The conservancy doesn't object.

"It's a sellout," said Dave Brown, a member of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy advisory board. Brown fears that if The Edge ends up getting a permit to build, other landowners in the area will follow, and "one of the most spectacular coastal views" in the country will be spoiled.

Jefferson "Zuma Jay" Wagner, legendary surfer and a Malibu councilman, called the conservancy's sellout a slap in the face of "all the people who have worked hard to preserve" land that's a local treasure.

Smeck, the conservancy board member who missed the April vote, is superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. He was temporarily transferred out of state, which is why he missed the April vote. Extending the Slope Trail would be great, he said, but existing trails offer spectacular views, and he thinks it's critical to stop incursion into ever-shrinking open spaces.

"Preservation of scenery, natural beauty and wildlife habitat are paramount," Smeck said. "I don't think you compromise those principles to provide a few more miles of trails."

Amen.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright 2011 Los Angeles Times

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on May 9, 2011 6:43 AM.

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