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Malibu Remains a Rural City 20 Years After Incorporation

Residents voted for incorporation to prevent a sewer system and big development from coming to Malibu.

Twenty years ago this Monday, more than 600 people gathered at the auditorium to witness the installation of the first Malibu . It was a joyous event, and the spirits were high. This was the culmination of a long battle that began nearly three decades earlier.

For many years, rural Malibu was ruled by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which governed from a distance in downtown Los Angeles.  Three times the county brought proposals for sewer system before the Malibu voters in what activists said were attempts to ease the pathway for big development. Local voters rejected each of these proposals. But attempts at creating an independent city of Malibu also failed in 1964 and 1976.

By the late 1980s, the sewer proposal was back, but the threat was stronger. This time, the county did not need the consent of the voters because it had gotten Malibu declared a health hazard. In late 1987, the Malibu Committee for Incorporation was formed, and more than enough signatures to put cityhood on the ballot were collected by early 1988. But the county continued to fight the effort.

“Every time we would hit a hill, we had to climb it, and when we got to the other side, there was another one,” said Lucille Keller, who with her husband Walt (Malibu’s first mayor) headed the cityhood effort. “And it was just on and on. I don’t think the county fought the incorporation of any other area like it fought Malibu cityhood.”

The county was unable to stall the process forever. In early 1990, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs ruled an election must happen, and one took place that June. The vote was almost unanimous, with 84 percent of the people choosing cityhood in an election with 67 percent voter turnout.

“If there was ever a textbook case how people in government could lose the consent of the governed, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors circa 1989 to 1990 is it,” said Tom Hasse, who served on the City Council from 1998 to 2002 and was what he called a “foot soldier” in the cityhood campaign. “They did almost everything to P.O. their constituents in Malibu to such an extent, you see the results— more than 80 percent in favor of cityhood.”

Also in that election, the people chose five members for the first City Council from among 32 candidates. Those picked were Keller, Larry Wan, Carolyn Van Horn, Mike Caggiano and Missy Zeitsoff.

Still, the county continued to fight, and managed to stall incorporation for almost another 10 months. Malibu finally became a city March 28, 1991. The festive first council meeting took place that day, which was a Thursday. A weekend celebration organized by Joan House (who went on to become Malibu’s longest-serving council member, from 1992 to 2004) took place. It included a parade, skydivers and even a party, with the Kellers having the first dance “like it was our wedding,” Lucille Keller said with a laugh.

Hasse said what impressed him the most about the cityhood effort was that the leaders were ordinary people who battled a county government of professionals.

“These people were not experts in planning and zoning and creating a city or municipal law,” Hasse said. “But they took the time to learn, and they raised the money to hire the experts they needed. They were just inspiring citizen activists. They were exactly the type of people the founders of the country envisioned citizens to be.”

Lucille Keller agreed that the county had the edge on sophistication.

“They had the money, they had the lawyers,” she said. “We had to fight and raise our own money to do it. There is nothing more I hate than getting on the phone and asking somebody for money. But you just had to do it if you were going to see it through.”

And many agree that the fight was worth it, as they prevented Malibu from becoming an area of high-density development. Walt Keller shared this view during the inaugural council meeting.

“When the state and county governments looked at Malibu, they saw a land ripe for freeways, marinas, power plants and hotels,” Keller told the audience, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times covering the meeting. “But the residents of Malibu had a different vision."

Keller went on to serve on the council for seven of the next nine years, until he was soundly defeated in the 2000 election. He and his wife have disagreed with city leaders during the past decade on various issues. Keller joked, “At least we don’t have to drive so far to complain as we did with the county.”

Despite some differences of opinion on specific issues, most people agree that Malibu looks much different today than it would have looked had it remained directly under the county government.

“We’ve been able to control a lot more than we would have been able to control had we not been our own city,” Mayor Pro Tem Laura Zahn Rosenthal said. “We’ve had a lot of growing pains, but we were a very new city. We’re leaving our teens. We’re about to become 20 years old, and I think we’ve accomplished a lot. “

Bob Purvey March 27, 2011 at 03:08 PM
The good citizens of Malibu have managed to maintain the environment and property values by keeping out big business that want to bring in sewage treatment plants and there is now one proposed for the heart of Malibu. Sewage treatment plants bring in commercial developments that bring in traffic with little or no benefit to Malibu residents. We already have traffic that gets an "F" grade by Cal Trans because PCH has reached it's limit but there are those on our city council who believe the commercial developers should be allowed to increase the traffic because the "F" grade can't get any worse. The highway CAN get worse but the "F" grade CAN'T. Go figure: this is how they mince words. Commercial developers in the heart of Malibu contribute a fraction of the 10% all of the commercial businesses in all of Malibu contribute to the city's annual General Fund through taxes. Residents contribute 90% annually. The commercial developers in the heart of Malibu are the "Tail That Wags the Malibu Dog." And, they are a major source of pollution. The county was responsible for creating all the commercial zones (far too much) but the city can change that. If the heart of Malibu gets built out with a sewage treatment plant then that leads the way for the rest of Malibu at Point Dume and Trancas and points in between get built out with commercial developments and their kind of traffic that is now bumper to bumper and does not serve Malibu residents. So, the fight continues...
Carol Moss March 27, 2011 at 03:27 PM
Bob, is there a connection between enlarging water capacity in the lagoon, and sewering Malibu, thus allowing more development? Between enlarging lagoon capacity and Calabasas development? I honestly don't know but it is something to think about.
Bob Purvey March 27, 2011 at 04:07 PM
Carol, I just answered your similar question in the other Malibu Patch article: "Lagoon Overhaul Opponents Rally." but allow me to answer a bit differently here too... There is no connection and the myth that the lagoon is going to become deeper has been debunked with the project proponent's 5-minute video, wherein the scientists explain the facts and let you have the whole truth. Simply put: The Malibu Lagoon restoration and Enhancement project plan is to reconfigure the current shape of the lagoon and enhance the wildlife habitat – not dig a deep hole. Look at the artist's rendering of the final outcome and you'll see that the surface area appears to hardly change; change very little in my feeble estimation. The land to water contours slope to mimic the natural formation to allow for greater soil diversity. The depths of the channels vary and have pockets for fish, unlike the uniformed way they are now. The back of the lagoon will grade from shallow and become deeper as the water enters the main channel to allow for complete circulation. Please do not allow yourself to get mislead by half-truths: the lagoon is not going to get deeper than it is now at its deepest point - there will not be a big hole left in the lagoon. Just go see the artist's rendering at http://ecomalibu.org/lagoon-restoration-art950.htm you should see there is no correlation between the Lagoon Restoration and promoting further commercial development upstream.
Susan Tellem March 28, 2011 at 02:22 AM
Thanks Jonathan for reminding us of how much we want to keep Malibu rural. That goes for us folks in Malibu Park where in our small area alone we have horses, sheep, llamas, goats, cows, pigs and I am sure a chicken or two. We DO NOT want some out of towners or city approved EIR folks coming in here to change our zoning. Don't even think of it. We don't need the city spending our tax dollars on more parks and ball fields that will bring lights to our dark skies. We have more parks than most cities in the country. Stay away from Malibu Park and Trancas with your cockamamie notions of a zone change or we'll be coming after you like the folks did after Dr. Frankenstein.
Jonathan Friedman March 28, 2011 at 03:23 AM
Thanks Carol and Susan. That was a fun story to prepare and write. I enjoy history and talking to pioneers.

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