Horse Sense at the Coastal Commission?

Malibu Valley Farms' dubiously permitted equestrian facility impacts water quality in the Stokes Canyon Creek area. The permit is up for a revocation vote Thursday.

The media spotlight at the California Coastal Commission hearing Thursday will be on the fate of a complex of mansions proposed by U2 guitarist The Edge on pristine chaparral and coastal sage habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the Bay.  Although the “Joshua Tree” concert at the Sports Arena in 1987 was one of the best performances I’ve ever attended (I still get chills when I hear the intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name”), Heal the Bay is very critical of the project’s impacts on Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, the lack of Low Impact Development (LID) requirements to capture and reuse or infiltrate rainwater on site, and the complete lack of information on wastewater treatment and disposal.

Despite the attention on the Edge’s project, a far more critical Coastal Commission vote will take place on Thursday regarding Malibu Valley Farms.  In this case, the project applicant had the nerve to build a horse ranch in and directly adjacent to Stokes Canyon Creek, a tributary to Malibu Creek, which drains to the highly polluted and popular Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.

The developer built the ranch in this environmentally sensitive riparian area, with concrete and dirt crossings in the creek (instead of much more environmentally friendly bridges) without permission from the Coastal Commission, and then had the gall to ask for an after-the-fact permit.  What did the Commission do in response to this illegal development?  Did members bring down the hammer of enforcement?  Absolutely not!

Despite the fact that Malibu Valley Farms was illegally built, the owner was able to obtain a coastal development permit after the ranch was built.  In 2007, the Coastal Commission inexplicably approved the permit by a 7-5 vote in one of its worst decisions of the last decade (even though staff recommended denial of the permit).  On Thursday, the Commission has the chance to make amends for this horrible decision by revoking the coastal development permit and ordering Malibu Valley Farms out of the creek and associated riparian area.

 The Malibu Creek Watershed is impaired for bacteria, nutrients and sediment, and stream banks throughout the area suffer heavily from armoring and erosion. This facility is unnecessarily contributing to those impacts. The creek near the stable has high fecal indicator bacteria densities and nutrients concentrations. Our friends at Save Open Space (SOS) are the reason for the revocation proceedings.  They carried the burden of completing the revocation filing paperwork — no easy task.

The Commission needs to decide on the revocation by reviewing three legal tests:  Did the applicant include inaccurate, erroneous, or incomplete information in connection with its application?; if so, was the inclusion of the false information intentional?; and would accurate and truthful information have led to a different vote on the coastal development permit?

The results of the first two tests are clear cut.  The Coastal Commission staff reports that false information was deliberately submitted to the Coastal Commission by the applicant regarding the project (including false claims about State Water Board and Department of Fish and Game review).

On top of that, the developer never submitted the project to the Army Corps of Engineers or the Regional Water Board for Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting or Section 401 certification for dredging and filling waters of the United States, even though the concrete creek crossings, rip rap and drainage areas require it.  Also, the applicant falsely stated that the State Water Board had reviewed and approved its equestrian site plan, which never occurred. Finally, Malibu Valley Farms clearly never implemented any structural Best Management Practices to keep stable pollution out of the creek (no vegetated buffer zones, bridges across the creek, or mechanisms to keep horse manure and feed-polluted runoff from the creek were installed).

However, H.G. Wells may be needed to get a definitive answer to the third test.  Today’s Coastal Commission is almost completely different than the former Commission, but the project’s biggest proponent, Commissioner William Burke, still sits on the Commission.  I’m guessing, based on past voting history, that he will still support the project.  However, I’d like to think that the other 11 commissioners would take the information that the project applicant repeatedly lied about Malibu Valley Farms’ scope, scale, impacts and regulatory approvals and apply it properly to the 2007 coastal development permit decision.

If the Coastal Commission doesn’t revoke the permit, then what permit would members revoke?  The Commission will never have a more clear-cut revocation decision.   A reversal would compel the owner to move the stable fencing and corrals out of Stokes Canyon Creek and its buffer zone.  Not only is this feasible on the property, it would result in vastly improved riparian habitat and water.  More important, the revocation would send a clear message that the Coastal Act can’t be ignored and cheating to get around environmental requirements will not be rewarded.


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