Malibu Gets Set to Vote on Cityhood

It's 27 miles long, one mile wide, and it's populated by both celebrities and average folks out to protect their turf from too much development - a letter from Malibu

SO this is the way the better-off live. I'm sitting on a wood deck overlooking the Pacific at a home in the fabled Malibu Colony, retreat of the rich and famous. A chromium sun watches overhead, gulls skitter off the surf a few feet away, and, up and down the beach, homes protrude out into the sand worth an amount only the Pentagon could appreciate.

What could be wrong with life here? Apparently several things. Listen to what the owner of this house, actor Burgess Meredith, who is sitting in a denim cap, loose cotton shirt, shorts, and high-top Reeboks with no socks, has to say.

``We are trying to keep a few places left where you don't inhale gasoline fumes all the time,'' he says in his signature gravel-road voice. ``This could become a Coney Island or an Atlantic City.''

They are raising Cain in Eden. Amid concern about controlling growth and their own destiny, residents of this legendary seaside community will go to the polls June 5 to decide if they want to become a city.

At present Malibu is an unincorporated town administered by the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. But many residents, chafing at what they consider distant and deleterious rule by the board, want to run themselves. They are being driven in part by the fear that Malibu will become Miami Beach under the ``pro-development'' supervisors.

Yet even though the cityhood measure seems likely to pass, not everyone is pleased. There are differing opinions on how fast the town should be growing and whether a place more often identified with surfers and sybaritic delights will have the money and wherewithal to deal with such unglamorous things as traffic, police, and sewers. Some folks want the community to stay under the wing of the county.

``We have never had an election before,'' says Arnold York, publisher of the weekly Malibu Times. ``We haven't learned how to criticize each other yet without getting mad.''

Malibu is a beautiful but peculiar place: 27 miles long and one mile wide. Within that space reside 20,000 people, some of whom live in chaparral-covered mountains overlooking the sea and others who live on the water. Pacific Coast Highway runs down the middle.

There is really no downtown but instead a string of sometimes gaudy bikini outlets, real estate offices, fast-food restaurants, and mini-malls that hug the highway.

The town is more diverse than the Robin Leach view would suggest. Sure there is the Hollywood set, the Johnny Carsons and Larry Hagmans, many of whom live in homes cheek-by-jowl along the coast, where a dwelling on a lath-thin lot can fetch $3.5 million. But Malibu also has a large number of just plain folks who came in the 1950s and 1960s, when a ranch home cost under $60,000. Today that wouldn't buy the door knocker.

The town even has its share of elderly on fixed income and homeless (some, no doubt, attracted when actor Martin Sheen, the former honorary mayor, declared Malibu a sanctuary for aliens and the homeless).

Mixed in with all this is more than the usual amount of independence and outspokenness. As lawyer-turned-newsman York puts it: ``In the old West people went for their six-shooters. Here you reach for your lawyer.''

This spiritedness has surfaced in the debate over cityhood. In 1986 the county proposed an $86 million sewer system for Malibu because of what supervisors said was concern about pollution and the threat of landslides from local septic systems. The system, though, would have cost the average homeowner $32,000 in assessments, which produced a mini-revolt.

Since then, the county has scaled back its plans to a $43 million system. But many Malibu residents still think it is ill conceived and will lead to construction of large hotels and commercial developments. The plan also helped stir up enduring resentment over the county's ``faraway'' rule.

``These guys [the supervisors] pretend they know what's good for us,'' says Walter Keller, a leader in the pro-incorporation forces and a council candidate. ``We're not little kids.''

Although Malibu residents have rejected cityhood twice before, few think it will fail this time.

For one thing, the threat of a big property-tax increase to help pay for local services, which scared some voters in the past, won't happen now because of Proposition 13.

Yet there is anxiety about home rule. This is reflected in the varying opinions of the 30 candidates who are running for five seats on what would be the city council. Only two have come out against cityhood. But others have raised pointed questions about the ability to raise revenues in a town where real estate is the biggest industry.

Out of a proposed budget of $5 million (smaller than some residents' paycheck for one movie) would have to come a city staff, contracts for police protection, insurance.

Liability coverage is a preeminent concern: Malibu is prone to mudslides and other natural disasters. Will the city's policy cover future lawsuits? The sewer dispute also remains to be settled.

Pro-cityhood forces are confident everything will work out. As for the celebrity set, well, most are watching from their decks. A few have spoken up at sewer board meetings (Michael Landon, Ali McGraw). A few have given money to the pro-cityhood drive. But none are running for office, which means there will be no Mayor Eastwoods for the paparazzi.

``I'm not an activist,'' says Mr. Meredith. ``But everyone does what they can.'' He shows a visitor his purple-tiled hot tub and the inside of his house, which is rustically comfortable but not opulent.

``It is not a palace,'' he says, but its charm ``has to do with its access to the sea and the fact that there are no buildings along here higher than two stories. If we had some local control, we could hold onto that.''

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