Saving Malibu from the stars

| 1st February 2004
Barbara Streisand prides herself on being a movie star with an environmental conscience. So why did she take one man to court over his efforts to protect the California coastline?

‘Welcome to Malibu… [with its] rural and friendly atmosphere as if time stood still.’ So it says on a California property developer’s website. Cruising down the US’s Pacific Coast Highway on a balmy February day, it’s easy to focus only on Malibu’s wildflowered hills or the sparkling Pacific. But like so many coastal locales in the Golden State, this once pristine splendour is being eroded by rich and powerful individuals who view the natural world as theirs for the taking.

Jerry Perenchio is the chairman of Univision, the leading Spanish-language TV network in the US. This vastly wealthy Malibu resident is accused of illegally building a golf course on his property and then denying doing so to the local authorities in case they discovered the toxic pesticide run-off from the course spewing into a nearby lagoon.

Marcia Hanscom, the director of the Malibu-based conservation organisation the Wetlands Action Network, says the story of Perenchio’s golf course began over 20 years ago. When the project was in the design phase the billionaire media mogul informed the regulator responsible, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) that he had been told by doctors to build a park with a jogging trail for the good of his heart. The commission never checked Perenchio’s story.

Part of the reason for the CCC’s oversight, Hanscom says, is that Perenchio has contributed over $1m to California’s former Democratic governor Gray Davis and $50,000 to his Republican replacement the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. (One of the governor’s tasks is to appoint members of the CCC.)

Perenchio’s spokesperson Steve Sugerman contends that his boss’s development complies with the CCC permit issued in 1982. He also insists that water quality engineers have found no connection between the ‘park’ and the decline in water quality in the lagoon.

Hanscom rejects this. ‘If you view the site from the air, you can see the bunkers: it is a golf course, not a jogging trail,’ she says. ‘What’s more, the 10-acre former wetlands site has been releasing a poison river of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides into adjacent tidal waters.’

The view from above

Hanscom knows this thanks to the efforts of Kenneth Adelman. A 41-year-old Silicon Valley engineer, Adelman made it big during the technology boom of the 1990s. Since then he’s been using his wealth and technical expertise to restore California’s number-one natural resource – its coastline. Armed with a camera, he is aided in this mission by his helicopter-flying wife Gabrielle.

Seven years ago Adelman called the US environmental organisation the Sierra Club to check whether it had any need for aerial photos. Three months later he received a telephone call from San Francisco-based Sierra Club attorney Mark Massara. The latter needed help photographing San Simeon Point, where the communications giant the Hearst Corporation was trying to create a huge resort complex. The resulting photos ultimately saved the point from development.


Thus began a close personal and working relationship. ‘My wife and I taught Mark the power of aerial photography,’ says Adelman. ‘He’d call whenever he needed photos. We were happy to volunteer the use of our helicopter.’

Other successes followed. In January 2002, for example, Adelman’s images were used by the Sierra Club to show that a golf course developer had placed granite boulders on a public beach and built an illegal sea wall near California’s Half Moon Bay. The CCC ordered the developer to remove half the boulders and most of the wall and build a stairway to the beach.

Such experiences helped convince Adelman of the power of ‘before’ pictures. ‘It’s one thing to show photos of a bulldozed property with all the trees taken out,’ he says. ‘It’s another to show how it looked before.’

In March 2002 the Adelmans began a project to photograph every inch of California’s 1,100-mile coastline. Now 12,700 photographs later, visitors can go to and see the entire coastline as it looks from the air. This resource allows campaigners to view on a never-before-seen scale the devastating consequences of over-development. It’s also a great enforcement tool. It was Adelman’s photos that brought Perenchio’s secret golf course to Massara’s attention in the first place.

Looking at image 4,019, captioned by Adelman as ‘Perenchio’s new “wetlands” golf course’, you can see a postage stamp of vivid green that contrasts starkly with the highly parched surrounding terrain. The photo caught the attention of the CCC, which notified Perenchio about the issue. Perenchio apparently said it was ‘no big deal’, and began working on amending the original permit so as to allow for the golf course. Unsurprisingly, given Perenchio’s many donations to California’s governors over the years, the CCC issued a permit ‘after the fact’.

‘But we argued that it was a “big deal”, that nearly 1,000 pounds of chemicals were polluting the water annually,’ says Massara. Consequently, the CCC postponed a decision on Perenchio’s development. Last October, however, the commission resumed working with Perenchio. Massara and the Wetlands Action Network responded by suing the TV magnate. ‘It’s only a matter of time before Perenchio will be forced to remove his golf course,’ Massara insists.

With his pictures being used regularly by the US Forest Service and Coast Guard and a host of environmental organisations, Adelman is an increasing annoyance to those who insist they can do whatever they want – regardless of the environmental consequences. Not many landowners, for example, like being forced to remove the sea wall protecting their ocean hideaways. (Massara says that ‘building sea walls doesn’t stop erosion; it makes it worse’. As he explains, sea walls cause additional erosion elsewhere along the coast, which results in the need for yet more sea walls.)

Speaking of the over-development of the California coast, Massara says: ‘What’s inexplicable to a lot of us who appreciate nature’s dynamics is the fact that geo-technical professionals continue trying to build right along the edge of the coast and provide no room for natural erosion and geologic forces bigger than us.’

The main reason for this approach is, of course, money. ‘California coastal real estate is the most valuable dirt on the planet,’ explains Massara. ‘Add to that all these corruptible politicians and coastal commissioners, and you get nearly 1,000 new developments approved annually.’

Given this endless construction, you might think the California coast belongs to private individuals. But, as Hanscom says, it’s actually public property. That’s of little interest to the anti-regulatory organisation the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), however. The PLF is more concerned about how Adelman’s website will impact upon property owners. Adelman says: ‘It’s upset that my photographs are affecting people’s privacy. It says it’s unfair that these pictures allow their violations to be discovered. Interesting. What it’s really saying is that the purpose of privacy is to allow people to be lawbreakers.’

I’m a celebrity, get out of here

When it comes to privacy on the California coast, no one can compete with outspoken eco-diva Barbara Streisand. The Hollywood star recently sued Adelman for $10m, claiming invasion of privacy after his website displayed a photo of her bluff-top Malibu estate. Adelman claimed free speech, saying that displaying the image was necessary if the public was to have access to a complete record of the coast.

So why did the self-proclaimed environmentalist Streisand target Adelman, especially as photos of and driving directions to her house are posted elsewhere on the web? Not only has her suit caused thousands of otherwise uninterested web surfers to ogle her house, it’s also brought conservatives and progressives into a mocking chorus of her ecological preachings.

The judge in the case ruled in Adelman’s favour, ordering Streisand to cover his more than $100,000 legal fees. At the time Adelman said: ‘This decision sends a message to all environmental activists that the court will not tolerate threats of intimidation from a celebrity who believes that her personal interests are more important than the public’s constitutional right to free speech.’

The future: the past

Adelman is now in the process of re-photographing the California coast. He’s more excited, however, about a University of California professor’s recent discovery of shoe boxes filled with thousands of slides of the coast taken between 1972 and 1979. When Adelman gets them up on his website later this year, environmentalists will have an even clearer understanding of the impact of developers on California. More importantly, Adelman hopes his efforts will inspire others around the globe to engage in similar endeavours. We may not all be able to afford a helicopter, but almost anyone can get hold of a camera and begin documenting what’s left and what’s lost in our own neighbourhoods.

Arnie Cooper is a freelance journalist living in California

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2004


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