The California Coastal Commission rejected a controversial proposal last year by U2 guitarist the Edge to build five mansions on a scenic bluff above Malibu, saying that it would scar a rugged ridgeline and harm sensitive habitat.
Now, some of the same powerful lobbyists and lawyers behind the musician's quashed development are working the halls of the Capitol to push a bill that could give the rock star another chance at his dream compound.
Environmentalists and state agencies say that if the legislation becomes law, it will undermine the commission's position on his project and also extend to the character and development of the entire California coast and to state public lands.
At issue is how government agencies determine property ownership and how they use the findings in deciding whether to approve development.
Currently, the Coastal Commission has discretion to approve projects in environmentally sensitive areas -- and the size and nature of those developments depend on ownership. The agency is more inclined, for example, to turn down a developer seeking approval for a multi-home project than a property owner trying to build a single-family house.
Developers at times try to skirt the issue by claiming each homesite has a different owner. They shield the identities through formation of limited liability corporations.
In the case of the Edge, whose real name is David Evans, the agency denied his plans because it said he was attempting to bypass environmental rules and maximize development by submitting five separate applications, each under a different corporate name.
Under the bill, state agencies would have to accept as fact that the person holding the deed is the property owner. If the state sought to challenge true ownership, it would be held to the same evidentiary standards that apply in the court system. The Coastal Commission and others argue that the standard would hamstring public agencies because they have none of the court system's tools of discovery: subpoenas, depositions and sworn testimony.
Sarah Christie, legislative director for the Coastal Commission, said the result would be a chilling effect on public agencies' abilities to carry out their missions, giving any developers who game the system more clout and potentially leading to "more fragmented, inappropriate development" along the coast.
Environmentalists cast the bill as a power grab by developers and special interests, including Evans.
"The forces who want to maximize their profit above all else are seeking to rewrite the rules in such a way that ensures the state government has limited ability to oversee and to take care of our public trust resources," said Adam Keats, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The bill's author, Assemblyman Ben Hueso (D-Logan Heights), said he introduced the bill to rein in what he sees as an overzealous bureaucracy that uses arbitrary standards to block development, a notion shared by the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. Its purpose is not to advance the interests of the U2 guitarist, Hueso said.
Hueso, a former coastal commissioner, said the measure would end the commission's "very abusive strategy to prevent someone from developing even an environmentally friendly project." He said public agencies would still have the resources to investigate ownership.
"If we have every agency in California cherry picking projects they don't like, it's going to create an enormous problem in our ability to do business in California," he said.
The legislator said he got the idea for the bill from Paul Bauer, one of the lobbyists Evans hired last year to help him before the Coastal Commission.
Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, who also worked as a consultant on Evans' development, has lobbied the agency to support the legislation. In an email to the chairwoman of the commission last month, Nuñez said he was sharing his own view, not that of a client. "This bill would prohibit local agencies from discriminating against some by inserting their own interpretation of property ownership," he wrote.
The bill's text echoes language at the heart of lawsuits Evans and his partners have filed against the commission. Evans' attorney, Stanley Lamport, is also lobbying lawmakers to pass the new legislation.
In an interview, Lamport said his involvement had nothing to do with Evans and that he was acting in his capacity as the legislative chairman of the California Business Properties Assn., the sponsor of the bill. "It's a big issue and it's not about one person," Lamport said. "It's about everybody."
In a hearing last month, before the Coastal Commission voted to oppose the legislation, Commissioner Steve Blank cited Evans' case, saying the legislation reflected "the connection between projects we see, the Legislature and how when you're not happy with the commission result then you try to go pass a bill."
Evans' spokeswoman Fiona Hutton denied the allegation, saying in a statement that "Edge is not paying any consultant to lobby" on the legislation. She said Evans is working with Coastal Commission staff to resolve the conflict over his proposed 156-acre development.
Ultimately, Hueso said, the origin of the bill is irrelevant because it addresses a larger problem.
"If this was because of Edge, it doesn't take away the fact that this is the wrong way of doing business in California," Hueso said.
The measure, which sailed through the Assembly on a bipartisan vote, is set for committee hearings in the state Senate next week.
© Los Angeles Times, 2012.