Slippery Slope

A rock guitarist’s grand vision for a Malibu mountaintop has coastal watchdogs on edge

Illustration by Gracia Lam

To: The Edge    Re: Your planned Malibu compound

After reading about your troubles trying to build in the mountains of Malibu, I decided I needed to go up there, to the Sweetwater Mesa Ridgeline, and have a look for myself. I had passed by many times while driving along PCH or taking an out-of-towner to the Malibu Lagoon, but I had never been to see where you want to put five houses. Of course, as a native daughter and one who feels protective of those coastal hills, I have been intently following the dispute for the past few years, and let me say, it could not have been much fun for you. The media are only too happy to celebrate the difficulties of the rich and famous. We in L.A. love nothing better than when a celebrity gets in hot water or doesn’t get his or her way. It’s an equalizing kind of thing, the not-very-attractive flip side of our usual genuflection before the stars in our midst. For you this contretemps has been happening in tandem with the complicated successful failure (not an oxymoron in this case) of Spider-Man on Broadway, another of your pet projects. It must have seemed as if Mercury were in retrograde or some such.

I suppose your idea for an ocean-view compound sounded wondrous and doable. You bought 156 acres for the relatively modest sum of $9 million and then had architects and engineers draw up plans to erect an environmentally hip and sensitive enclave—the greenest of the green. The home you envisioned building for yourself came with the lyrical name “Leaves in the Wind,” and it looked like a floating dreamscape à la Frank Gehry. It was to be 12,785 square feet, not gargantuan like some of the stuff we’ve become accustomed to in Los Angeles, but certainly large, and it was to perch along a ridge overlooking the shoreline and ocean. The place appeared dangerous and daring and magical, hinged to a promontory.

It was also, according to the California Coastal Commission, a nonstarter—not the house itself but its location. The commission turned you down. But you didn’t back off. You hired lawyers and lobbyists. You entered into an agreement to give $1 million to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy that would go toward building a major new hiking trail that would cross your property (which, by the way, I would love, being an avid hiker). I don’t regard any of this as bribery, a charge I have heard from others. This is how the game gets played, certainly in Southern California. I understand that, even if I don’t always think it’s jake when those with money play with a fuller deck or have an unfair advantage. But why enunciate the obvious?

Alas, it doesn’t seem as if your campaign is going to work—not without modifications. All you have to do is stand on that wild land to know that. A friend who is conversant with the project took me on a tour in his four-wheel-drive truck. We entered through Serra Road, drove by the little guard tower and then up about three-quarters of a mile. No question, your acres are stunning, moving, thrilling, raw, full of native grasses and wildflowers as well as bobcats, California quail, and other creatures (their habitats are of ongoing concern for the naysayers). Your intended home on that front ledge is crazy vertiginous, though I can surely see how you wanted your “Leaves in the Wind” to in effect rustle above the sea. The problem is, the commission frowns on such placement and on edifices that are prominently viewable from below. It makes no bones about it. From its perspective, that kind of king-of-the-hill visibility is flat-out undesirable, a thumb in the public eye. The other proposed homes in your project are also on ridgelines rather than tucked away. The contention from your side is that these are the only possible locations, but standing there I found that hard to believe (as do people far more knowledgeable than I).

There is also the one-mile road you would need to build to connect the structures; that would be an engineering feat on its own, particularly when it comes to the last three plots at the top of the property. We crawled along that final spit of road—about a 20 percent grade—as it climbed and twisted. I felt as if I were on an amusement park ride, no less scary for our slow speed. I didn’t look down. I can’t imagine wanting to live up there, not to mention navigate the comings and goings—even when dead sober. After a beer or two, watch out. And what about the fire trucks? You cannot help but think about them because this is prime burn turf, especially when the wicked Santa Anas do their thing. You have asked to install a 7,800-foot water line that would crest the Santa Monica Mountains. The commission said forget about it because of the adverse impact. Yet you are still in there fighting.

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I have never been in a position like yours. I suppose it’s maddening. I know people who have tangled with the coastal commission and been enraged, including liberal eco-types who simply wish to modify a waterside dwelling. They say the commission can be a pain in the—well, you know, a sentiment you no doubt share by now. But I truly believe that most of us in this state are grateful for its work because it stands between us and all manner of unsightly development. Maybe in Ireland, where you grew up, it’s too cold and forbidding along much of that country’s shoreline for people to think of settling there. But from top to bottom, the California coast, heart-stoppingly beautiful and blessed with a temperate climate, is ever alluring to builders. You are just one guy with a stubborn dream about where you want to plunk down hearth and home and raise your kids. You bought a piece of property and, by God, this is America, you should be allowed to build something you want (after jumping through the requisite hoops, and I’m sure you feel you have done plenty of jumping).

I don’t think you are a bad guy. Far from it. After all, you are mates with Bono, who is actively engaged in trying to make the world a better place. According to everything I read, you, too, are a thoughtful man with good values, someone who has supported organizations such as Amnesty International and the New York Food Bank. After Katrina, you cofounded the charity Music Rising to replace instruments that had been lost in the hurricane. That’s bighearted stuff. Some people are bewildered by what strikes them as a disconnect between your philanthropic self and the person who wants to nest on a delicate and contested piece of earth. Yes, you own it and have every right to build on it, especially in the admirably green way you intend. But we don’t want to look up and see you there. We don’t want to see reflecting glass in the bright day or shining lights at night (and no street lamps along the road, please). We at least want to have the illusion that there’s some wild and sacred ground left—because that puts us in touch with our better, more careful, and custodial selves.

So isn’t there a way you can scale back, get these houses down out of sight—and perhaps cancel those three high up in the sky? Can’t you just wander your gorgeous grounds by yourself and figure out how to change things up a bit? Otherwise we face being locked in an ongoing fight that will cost not only you big bucks but the rest of us taxpayers, who will continue to help foot the coastal commission’s legal bills. Then instead of being a symbol of intransigence and, dare I say it, arrogance, you could turn back into a true guitar hero.

A Concerned Citizen