LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Superior Court judge could rule by Friday on whether U2 guitarist The Edge can break ground on a $79 million, five-home project on 151 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains, or whether it needs more environmental review.
The Edge has been at the center of the controversial development called the Sweetwater Mesa Project. He bought the site 12 years ago and faced fierce objections from environmental groups and residents, but the California Coastal Commission approved the homes in December 2015.
Last year, the Sierra Club claimed the state violated its own environmental laws by approving the development, caving in when faced with legal threats.
The Sierra Club asked Superior Court Judge James Chalfant to set aside the Coastal Commission’s approval and delay the development to ensure compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Coastal Act. It said the project could affect air quality and increase greenhouse gas pollution.
At a Tuesday afternoon hearing, Chalfant said he hoped to rule by Friday.
Deputy Attorney General Jamee Patterson argued for the California Coastal Commission. Along with the developers’ attorney Stan Lamport, she said the Coastal Commission had complied with CEQA, the state’s wide-ranging environmental law. She said the commission was exempted from preparing an environmental impact statement that would have considered non-coastal impacts such as air quality and traffic impacts.
Sierra Club attorney Dean Wallraff argued that since there was no other lead agency, the commission should have been in charge of a broader environmental review under CEQA.
The Edge, whose real name is David Evans, is not a party to the lawsuit and was not present Tuesday. His wife Morleigh Steinberg and the project’s director Moses Hacmon watched from the courtroom. They declined to comment after the hearing.
A ruling for the Sierra Club would mark a significant setback and revive an earlier lawsuit the developers filed against the commission. It was settled and then stayed by the court.
The Edge wants to build five luxury homes, each with a swimming pool, in open space in the Santa Monica Mountains.
After the hearing, Wallraff said the developers’ appraiser estimated $78 million in construction costs and valued the residence at $79 million. The construction includes the $24 million it will cost to build a half-mile long access road, he said. The Edge acquired the land for $9 million, bringing the total cost to $87 million.
“This is an incredibly engineered road. Why do we need this in the middle of Malibu hills?” Wallraff said outside the courtroom.
Sierra Club member Mary Ann Webster has fought the development since 2007. She said she does not want to see the homes on the hillside.
“The National Park Service has listed this land as one of the highest priorities for acquisition, and the reason we haven’t acquired it is the feds don’t have the money,” she said. “But it’s still important because it’s contiguous with the conservancy land and the NPS [National Park Service].”
After he won approval, The Edge, who had threatened to take legal action if he did not get his way, thanked the Coastal Commission and the community for their feedback and said his Wallace Cunningham-designed home would be environmentally sound.
“From day one my intention was to build a home of the very highest possible standard of environmental sensitivity and sustainability. Together, this collaborative effort has achieved that goal,” he said.
But the Sierra Club says in court filings that The Edge’s construction of a 2,180-foot access road, a 7,000-foot water line and the home would degrade sensitive native vegetation and ruin public views of the hillside.
The Coastal Commissions said in court filings in March that the developers had substantially reduced the footprint of the homes, and accused the Sierra Club of misstating its “role as an administrative agency.”
“In essence, the Sierra Club seeks to impermissibly substitute its judgment for that of the commission. The Sierra Club also misstates the Commission’s obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act. As a certified regulatory agency, the Commission was not required to assume lead agency status and analyze all environmental impacts; instead, the Commission properly limited its review to Coastal Act issues,” the commission’s brief states.
In an opposition, also filed in March, the developers said the Sierra Club’s argument is “based on a false premise.”
The developers said the resubmitted applications were “vastly different” and that the commission-approved plan reduced the “disturbed area” by 43 percent and increased open space by 44 percent.
“Under the commission approval, approximately 90 percent of the site (140 acres) will remain permanent, undeveloped open space,” the developers said.
In 2011, after the Coastal Commission denied applications to build home on the site, four of the developers filed lawsuits, which were settled in March 2013. In the face of the legal challenges, the commission agreed to remand the applications and allowed the developers to file new ones.
The Sierra Club says the agency ultimately rubber-stamped the project because of the threat of legal action.
The lawsuit also took a shot at U2, suggesting that the band would contribute to noise pollution and increased traffic if it decides to perform at the property.
The Coastal Commission is a respondent in the Sierra Club’s lawsuit and real parties in interest include the developers Mulryan Properties, Morleigh Properties, Vera Properties, Lunch Properties, Ronan Properties and Ed West Coast Properties.