Lengthy City of Malibu Diversification Ordinance Process Gets Underway
• Preserve Malibu Group's Supporters Claim Victory and Celebrate the Community's "New Dawn'
BY ANNE SOBLE
The Malibu City Council on Monday directed the planning staff to draft a preliminary retail diversification ordinance. On a 4-to-one vote, Councilmember Lou La Monte in opposition, council members provided a skeletal outline for initiation of the development of an ordinance limited to two commercial areas of the city—the Civic Center and the Trancas Center.
City Manager Jim Thorsen said, "These are very general parameters, and the direction may change," but proponents of a diversification ordinance expressed public jubilation that the process was going to begin.
Since the direction provided is a starting point and where the process leads will depend on citizen and business owner participation, City Attorney Christi Hogin added, "All is to be studied. There is no hard and fast way."
The birthing of the ordinance preparation process was lengthy and arduous. After hearing 80 speakers, council members began deliberation at about midnight. For nearly three hours, they had listened to multiple variations on a number of basic issues from the proponents and the opponents of a municipal diversification measure.
Where proponents want balance and more local day-to-day resident needs met with affordable options, instead of high-end clothing stores, opponents of regulation said residents dictate retail composition by using their wallets to create the balance they want.
Mayor Laura Rosenthal reminded speakers, "We need to be a town for new [more affluent] residents as well," as she professed delight that her favorite retail cosmetics chain has opened in Malibu.
Proponents discussed the role of small, independent businesses in creating community character, but opponents said chains offer inventory and price. Opponents added that they don't have small independent applicants seeking space in Malibu centers even when they offer discounted rents.
Proponents contend too many businesses are geared toward visitors and the large local student population than full-time residents. Opponents cite a "trickle-down" theory that chains pay the way for smaller businesses, even though anchors and large chains often pay less per square foot than small stores because they are taking more space and can sign 20-year-or-longer leases.
At its most basic, the argument is one of political philosophy—faith in the free enterprise system and the belief that "the government that governs least governs best," disregarding that controls that range from the tax system to health and safety regulations impact every sector of the economy, and no enterprise is "free" of these laws.
Though his center was ultimately exempted from initial review, Zan Marquis, the owner of Point Dume Village, said, "Anything that makes the permitting process more difficult will hurt the local business community." He predicted a dramatic increase in vacancies if a diversification ordinance is implemented as "there is not a large reservoir of prospective tenants looking at Malibu."
Hamish Patterson, a candidate for one of the three seats in the April 10 city council race, said residents are "just asking for a little fairness. Commercial owners want to shut the public out of the process." Using the example of putting a Subway franchise, even though locally owned, next door to the independent Point Pizza, Peterson said, "This is an unfair practice" toward the small business.
Another council candidate, Missy Zeitsoff said government "traditionally listens to those with a financial stake" in public policy. She said, "It's now time to listen to the citizens who have no financial gain" on public policy issues.
Business owner Alex Hakim countered that business success is really about "survival of the fittest." He said, "There's a Peter Pan syndrome in Malibu, residents are scared to grow up."
But ordinance activist Kerry Beth Daly explained, "Developers use Malibu's assets—culture, reputation and infrastructure" to make money and they should have "to serve our community and respect our culture."
A theme that resonated among critics of an ordinance proccess was echoed by Councilmember Lou La Monte, who referred to the Preserve Malibu Group that spearheaded the effort as a "small group from western Malibu," and implied it was not representative of the community as a whole, particularly the eastern end, where he said there are "no balance issues."
PMG members repeatedly cited the over a thousand signatures on their petition, as well as letters to city that were signed by more than 400 people.
But former city council member Sharon Barovsky made a rare public statement to the effect that the city council needs to hear from "the whole community and [should hold] more public hearings," which the council has indicated will be done. She said council members "hear from just five or six people" and described the PMG petition as "a kiss-your-mother" petition that is meaningless.
Barovsky added there's no law that can force a landlord to take a certain tenant or renew a lease, and warned that a diversification law is fraught with "pitfalls."
PMG activist Jae Flora Katz later singled out Barovsky directly and said, "This is a real petition—not a kiss-your-mother petition, with specifics that 1200 people want to see enacted to encourage a local business balance."
Despite all the late night sound and fury, what PMG seeks is not a business revolution, but an evolutionary transition to meeting local needs that grandfathers all current leases and only enacts controls as leases expire.
PMG did not get all of the specifics it seeks, but the council's loosely worded directions to staff create a framework for ongoing discussion and the potential to work toward many of the group's goals.
Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich, whose own effort at a retail formula ordinance was sidestepped procedurally earlier in the meeting, told diversification proponents via a telephone connection that more effort is required, and she expressed the "hope voters on April 10 will tell the Malibu City Council where [the voters] are coming from."
On the directions to staff, Councilmember John Sibert said, "I hate to see too much government" and indicated he would like the "PMG energy put into a 'buy local' campaign," The lone incumbent running for reelection then paused and said, "If I get defeated on this issue, that's OK (then almost sotto voce added, "It might even be good")
Sibert said the "council shouldn't decide details tonight" because of the late hour, with which his colleagues generally concurred as long as planning staff had what is necessary to start the process.
Planning Director Joyce Parker-Bozylinski outlined the steps of ordinance process, which could take several months or longer. Associate Planner Joseph Smith, who was praised by both sides for his work on the diversification issue, is about to begin a month-long paternity leave, but it was indicated that preliminary groundwork could continue in his absence
Although there is still a long road ahead, PMG activist John Mazza told the Malibu Surfside News Tuesday, "Just like cityhood, a dedicated group of citizens fought to preserve the unique Malibu lifestyle and won. I am very proud of the many people who are working to make sure our city keeps its soul."
PMG ranks were emailed, "You signed, you stood, you spoke, you preserved Malibu! Sustaining small businesses, protecting citizens' retail needs, planning the future of our center of town and preserving Malibu just made a gigantic step forward!"
In April, the city planning department will begin a new planning clearance process that requires information about each new business seeking to open and those seeking major remodels that require permits
On Saturday, May 12, the American Independent Business Alliance will offer a free daylong "Strength in Numbers" program with emphasis on a "buy local" campaign in the Malibu City Council Chambers.