In the past two weeks, Santa Monica politics have been upended with the revelation that developers have secured rights to build nearly 5,000 new housing units in medium- and high-density projects spread throughout the city, superseding local zoning rules. 

Last week, Beverly Hills received a similar application to build a 16-story residential project just off Wilshire Boulevard. Earlier this fall, Redondo Beach was handed an application to construct nearly 2,300 units of housing at the site of the old AES Redondo Beach Power Plant. 

But up the coast in nearby Malibu — an exurban enclave that was incorporated into a city in 1991 by a group of residents hoping to block a sewer project that could have led to new development — that city may escape a similar fate due to it being located entirely in the Coastal Zone, and therefore falling under tighter state-mandated development restrictions than other areas of the state.

Malibu’s state mandated housing plans, or Housing Element, require the City to prove it can plan for 79 new housing units over the next eight years — less than 1% of Santa Monica’s regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) number of 8,874. Statewide rules that opened the door for developers to claim rights to build tall, high-density projects in Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Beverly Hills and scores of other California cities in order to meet their RHNA goals are still in effect in Malibu, as long as Malibu’s Housing Element is out of compliance — but its LCP, or Local Coastal Program, adds an additional layer of governance that could block high density development.

As of Friday, the HCD website listed Malibu among the 54 LA County jurisdictions whose Housing Elements remained out of compliance (among a total of 88 cities plus unincorporated LA County). Each of those communities with non-compliant Housing Elements was thus under state rules that suspend local control over features like FAR (floor area ratio, or building density) and maximum height for projects that include at least 20% affordable or 100% moderate-income units, through what’s known as the “builder’s remedy.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Malibu’s city spokesperson wrote that efforts to bring Malibu’s Housing Element into compliance were “underway,” but it had been more than 10 months since Malibu City Council last met to discuss the document in January of this year. That first draft was rejected by the state.

“After adoption, the Housing Element was submitted to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for review as required by law,” Media Information Officer Matt Myerhoff wrote in an email on Tuesday. “HCD has requested additional clarification regarding some topics in the adopted Housing Element and the City and its consultants are working to address those remaining issues.”

The lack of urgency may come down to Malibu’s LCP. That set of rules, governed by the City but authored by the California Coastal Commission, supersedes local zoning laws and places limits on development that already prevent the types of multifamily buildings common in Santa Monica. 

According to Malibu’s LCP, in multi-family residences, “Any portion of the structure above 18 feet in height shall not exceed 2/3rds the first floor area, and shall be oriented so as to minimize view blockage from adjacent properties.” The maximum floor area ratio, or FAR, in Malibu’s LCP is .20. That essentially prohibits any high density multifamily developments. Since the rules come from the state and not the City’s municipal code, they may hold water even when faced with builder’s remedy applications. 

The issue of whether a city’s LCP can win out over a builder’s remedy project is already playing out down the coast in Redondo Beach, where developer Leo Pustilnikov applied for a 2,300-unit residential project within the Coastal Zone to replace the AES power plant near the beach.

Speaking to Malibu City Council last Monday, Malibu Planning Director Richard Mollica did not appear rattled by the flood of builder’s remedy applications that have come through to Santa Monica and other jurisdictions that have been out of compliance.

“We are diligently pursuing it, and ideally we’ll have this wrapped up shortly,” Mollica said of Malibu’s 6th Cycle Housing Element. 

Councilmember Mikke Pierson, who has been on Malibu City Council since 2018 after spending six years on the City’s Planning Commission, said he “absolutely” believed Malibu was acting in good faith to get its Housing Element approved.

“I’ve never seen anything other than [staff] being on top of that and trying to get that done,” Pierson said. “If it’s stalled in some details in the process, it’s hard for me to know exactly where that’s at. We were on it early, we got it in in January, and the city’s taking it seriously.”

Pierson said that he was also involved in the previous 5th Cycle Housing Element that was submitted in January 2014, and he recalled that cycle was “more simple that time — but maybe that’s just my memory.”

Looking at the 2014 5th Cycle Malibu Housing Element, the city’s RHNA for that period was just two units of housing. 

Malibu city staff did not provide answers to questions about the process or the urgency the city feels in creating a compliant Housing Element.

As of press time, no such applications have been filed in Malibu, but as long as the door stays open, property developers who own land there could choose to submit one at any time. 

Cities including Santa Monica are already seeking legal power to block some of these projects and builder’s remedy applications are not commitments from developers, who may opt not to pursue every development. 

emily@smdp.com