By Hans Laetz, Special to the Daily Press

The City of Malibu Planning Commission approved the proposed Malibu High School reconstruction plan during its last meeting on Tuesday, May 31.

The Commission made a few changes, but recommended that the city council OK both the multi-year overall plan and the exact plans for the high school complex scheduled to go up in the next year.

The height of future buildings — an auditorium and gym — were a major problem to one longtime commissioner: John Mazza.

Mazza’s objections went down on a 2-1 vote, with fellow Commissioner Kraig Hill absent and Commissioner Jeff Jennings sitting in the audience because his house is within 500 feet of the property.

At the meeting, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) School Board Member Craig Foster said the high school complex is a light at the end of the tunnel for Malibu’s school families.

Foster told the Planning Commission that Malibu’s school families have been battered for seven years, with school enrollment declining as a result.

“The overall plan for the new Malibu High School is Malibu’s vision, created by Malibu stakeholders, to support Malibu students as they ready themselves for college and career with spaces that are safe and expressly designed to prepare them for their lives in the middle of the 21st century,” Foster said. “Seventy percent of the Malibu voters supported this measure and Malibu residents and district staff have moved consistently and diligently to move us to this point.”

Foster is the lone Malibu resident on the Santa Monica-dominated School Board.

Foster stressed the resurrection of the high school is not a SMMUSD plan — it is a plan that came out of Malibu.

“This is a vital project for all of us — all of us in Malibu,” Foster said. “This is us. This is a Malibu project supported by Malibu voters, for Malibu families and kids. There is no ‘they’ here; there is only ‘us’.”

There were no speakers against the school buildings. The only opposition was to the parking lot proposed at the north end of the school, which several residents spoke in opposition to. Plans for that lot have already been up in the air.

No speakers from the public objected to a 45-foot-high performing arts center in the middle of the campus, replacing the 41-foot-high auditorium currently jammed up against Morning View Drive. And only Mazza objected to the new high school building where Juan Cabrillo Elementary now sits.

Mazza said the high school should get a 24-foot height limit, not 45 feet. He reasoned that since the new Santa Monica College satellite building going up across town in central Malibu is almost 36 feet high, the new high school should be limited to 24 feet. 

“A school was built at the Civic Center at 35 feet 8 inches that is in a commercial zone, that had great objection from the public,” Mazza said, referencing the college. “And therefore the Planning Commission should consider those when it comes before the CDP [conditional development permit].”

Two other commissioners, Dennis Smith and Mark Wetton, both said they did not agree.

“Those buildings need to be that height for the facilities that they are going to house,” Wetton said. “You have got to have regulation height for volleyball in the gym and you have a certain heights for performing arts … And this is not just for the school. This is for the whole community.”

In the end, the heights passed.

The biggest controversy of the night was the proposed new swimming pool, a 50-meter pool that would replace the cramped and crumbling shark tank, and which will also be used by the public when feasible. 

Swimming pools are reflective and bounce light up. School District official Steve Massetti said pool light brightness standards are set by state and county officials, and they may be brighter than what is allowed by the Malibu Dark Skies Ordinance. Many residents spoke about the importance of the pool to Malibu High and the youth of Malibu, including the importance of having the pool open until 8 p.m. 

Colin Drummond, a volunteer with the Malibu Seawolves swim team, said the team needs to work early in the morning or late at night to fit around school uses.

“Because we have to swim after the high school kids every night during the week, if, for example, [the] Dark Sky [Ordinance] was to reduce us to sunrise to sunset, it would basically eliminate our club,” Drummond said, “and that would be putting 80 Malibu kids out on the street.”

Massetti said the State and County require the pool to be light enough for lifeguards to see people at the bottom and that eliminating the lights would mean essentially eliminating public use of the pool on school days.

“We could probably get all of our [school] uses in within the daylight hours, and that would leave zero hours of the community. That is not what we want. We realize that this is an important facility for the community,” Massetti said. “And so our plan is to create a workable solution, that may not be Dark Skies compliant but will be as close as we can get it.”

No one member of the public objected to the lights — only Mazza. 

He said that Pepperdine University is operating its big pools within the Dark Skies rules and within County rules; City staff were not able to verify that. 

Pepperdine University — a private school — is not legally in the boundaries of the City of Malibu and does not operate under State education codes or the Office of the State Architect … both of which regulate public schools. 

City officials at the May 31 meeting said any applicable state laws on swimming pool safety would preempt Malibu’s local Dark Skies Ordinance, so if the pool needs to be brighter than allowed under Malibu’s ordinance, state rules will prevail. 

The Planning Commission recommended all driveways and pedestrian access would have to be off Morning View Drive. That might prevent the school bus barn from being relocated to a site near a current equestrian center off Merritt Drive adjacent to the school property.

The Commission also proposed electronic display signs would have to be pointed toward the school and not the street.

The approval came about four months after the plans hit a snag that school district staff feared could derail the entire $160 million project. In January, Malibu representatives requested a pause in proceedings — which at the time were set to go before the SMMUSD Board of Education — citing what they said was a lack of communication between Malibu and the SMMUSD, as well as a lack of acknowledgment that Malibu could, sooner or later, have its own independent school district. However, after SMMUSD staff reached out to counterparts with the City of Malibu, the project began moving forward again.

The recommendations now go to the Malibu City Council for a final decision on June 15.

This leaves the District timetable intact. Demolition of the old Juan Cabrillo campus is now on track for this summer and fall.