Sweetwater Mesa sits on an untouched hillside 1,000 feet above the Malibu Pier. More than 150 acres, it straddles an old Jeep road that climbs into the Santa Monica Mountains.
It’s steep, rugged terrain, empty apart from small lizards, flying insects and the occasional rattlesnake. Chaparral and purple needle grass cover the ground, making it an environmentally sensitive habitat under California coastal regulations.
A biologist might stand on that hillside and notice what’s at his feet. Anyone else is likely to be transfixed by the view: steep mountains plunging into a deep blue ocean that stretches across the horizon, like God’s infinity pool.
David Evans (a.k.a. U2 guitarist “The Edge”) first saw that vista in 2005 with his wife, Morleigh Steinberg. Evans had spent more than two decades strumming his way from anonymity in North Dublin to playing guitar for one of the most successful rock bands on the planet. The couple could afford practically anything they dreamed of by that point, and they dreamed of a house on that ridge.
"We were absolutely blown away by its beauty, and the position of it, and every aspect of its potential,” Evans said later, during one of the longest, most bitter and costliest residential development battles in California history.
Since buying the land more than a decade ago and proposing to build a residential compound, Evans and his partners have employed more than 60 lawyers, lobbyists and environmental consultants to get the required permits, public records shows.
They filed more than 70 technical reports, filling 26 bankers boxes, from all manner of experts — geologists, biologists, hydrologists, archaeologists, arborists, structural engineers, transportation engineers — to persuade the California Coastal Commission that the houses wouldn’t unduly stress the plants and animals living on the hillside, or create an eyesore for neighbors and surfers riding waves off the beaches far below.
Take a virtual tour of Sweetwater Mesa
There’s no public accounting of how much the massive lobbying effort has cost, and Evans declined to be interviewed for this story. But his struggle has become a symbol of, depending on your perspective, the absurd thicket of regulation facing those who want to build along California’s 1,100 miles of coast or the ability of the rich and politically connected to get their way.
In the process, Evans, whose band has famously championed progressive causes like ending apartheid and easing debt for developing nations, became a pariah among California environmentalists, as debate about the potential impact on a sensitive habitat gave way to critics claiming he planned to “level” the mountain. LA Weekly branded his proposal the “Edge of Destruction.”
The criticism has taken a toll on Evans, say those close to him.
“We’re talking about an activist, an artist, that made his money from spreading peace and love in the world,” said Evans’ project director, Moses Hacmon. “He has been hurt, personally, by all of this.”
The brochure offering Sweetwater Mesa for sale in 2005 had sketches of five boxy, Bauhaus-inspired houses, Evans said in a video produced by his public relations team years later.
He and his wife, a Los Angeles dancer who had performed with the band on tour, were initially put off because they wanted only one house. But they were so taken by the setting that they bought the land — for nearly $9 million, county records show — and then recruited friends and family from Ireland to become partners in building what they pictured as an eco-friendly sanctuary in the California sun.
But the property, made up of five separate parcels, would have been “in the crosshairs” of suspicious environmentalists and regulators well before Evans and Steinberg set foot on it, said Ralph Faust, former chief counsel for the Coastal Commission.
The previous owner, Brian A. Sweeney, who bought the land in 2001 for $1.5 million according to county records, was a speculator who had made millions flipping undeveloped coastal tracts coveted by preservationists. He’d buy the land, begin the permitting process to build a subdivision and then sell it for a hefty profit to suddenly motivated conservation groups and park agencies.
Sweeney had taken the preliminary step of receiving “approval in concept” from Los Angeles County for five houses – one on each of the property’s five separate legal lots — before selling it.
“We didn’t know those stories about Sweeney. We didn’t know about those controversies. Had we known, The Edge and Morleigh would not have bought the land,” said Hacmon.
After Evans’ purchase, the first objections came from his future neighbors, who feared the compound would spoil their views. They were quickly joined by conservation groups, who said the land, which is adjacent to Malibu Creek State Park, was an essential wildlife corridor and should be left untouched.
In an effort to soothe critics, and build something that suited his own environmentalist aesthetic, Evans threw out the “boxy” plans and hired renowned architect Wallace Cunningham to design houses that, while very large – they ranged from 7,220 to 12,785 square feet — blended more naturally into the rugged hillside.
Renderings of the five houses
As Evans’ team worked, they consulted with the Coastal Commission, attempting to ensure the designs would win approval from the notoriously hard-to-please regulators.
Members of the commission are unpaid, apart from food and travel allowances while they attend meetings, and are appointed by either the governor, the state Senate Rules Committee or the speaker of the Assembly. Commissioners usually can’t stop owners from building on private land on the coast, but state law gives them tremendous authority over the size and scope of any construction.
The houses’ potential impact on the “viewshed” — what people might see from the ocean or while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway – would become a big issue. So Evans hired visual impact consultants to persuade commissioners that the houses, which were shorter than local zoning laws allow, would be relatively unobtrusive.
Another concern was stability of the terrain. In the four years leading up to their first hearing before the commission, Evans and his partners spent more than $400,000 for engineering studies to demonstrate the rock beneath the proposed building sites would not crumble and trigger landslides.
To overcome opposition from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency created to protect open space in the region, Evans and his partners offered easements for a public hiking trail and about $1 million to help build and maintain it.
Tour The Edge's original homesite
While the surrounding hillsides were scattered with subdivisions, some containing dozens of homes, the Irish group’s houses covered less than 3% of their land. The rest of Sweetwater Mesa would be left undisturbed.
So, despite a groundswell of vocal opposition, when Evans’ consultants walked into the Marina Del Rey Hotel in June 2011 for their first hearing before the commission, they had reason to hope their plans would be approved.
They hit a buzz saw in the form of Peter M. Douglas.
A fierce and controversial environmental crusader, Douglas had been a key author of the 1972 ballot initiative that created the commission, and had served as the agency’s Executive Director since 1985.
In a rich baritone, Douglas opened the hearing with his succinct opinion of the project. The proposed homes were “very attractive,” Douglas offered, but they were still too big, too prominently perched on the ridgeline and the access road connecting them would carve a jagged, mile-long scar across the face of the mountain.
“In my 38 years with the commission,” Douglas said, “I have never seen a project as environmentally devastating as this one.”
Shocked, Evans’ team scrambled. The project manager at the time, Don Schmitz, a former Coastal Commission employee who had become a developer’s consultant, lectured the commissioners for ignoring their history of allowing larger developments, with longer access roads, on surrounding hillsides.
If any tactic could have saved the day, confrontation wasn’t it. The commission voted 8-4 against the proposal.
Because Evans was entitled to build something on the land, Douglas’ staff offered an alternative: Make the houses smaller, move them off the ridgeline and cluster them close together on a relatively flat mesa lower on the hillside, eliminating the need for about half of the road.
And then they dropped a bomb. The commission staff didn’t believe there were actually five separate owners. Instead, they said, the limited liability corporations through which the partners held deeds were part of a scheme to mask the one true owner, Evans.
In that case, Evans would only be entitled to one house, but the staff was prepared to allow up to three.
That meant two of his four partners — Gillian Delaney, Evan’s sister; Chantal O'Sullivan, a Dublin antiques dealer who was the ring bearer at Evans’ wedding; and two wealthy Irish real estate investors, Tony Kilduff and Paddy McKillen – would be out of luck.
Evans’ team insisted the partnership was genuine, and that Evans had no controlling interest in the others’ property. They played videos recorded by three of the partners in Ireland conveying that message, but the commission wasn’t swayed.
Many applicants might have given up at that point, but The Edge had the money and determination to fight on.
First, he sued, asking a judge in October 2011 to determine that there were, in fact, five separate owners. Evans agreed to suspend the lawsuit while he and the commission staff explored an out-of-court compromise on the number, size and location of the houses.
In addition to the lawsuit, some of the lobbyists and lawyers Evans had previously hired, including ex-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, one the most powerful advocates in Sacramento, launched an effort to change state law. They pushed a bill in the 2012 legislative session that would have required the Coastal Commission, and other state land regulators, to accept that a person, or corporation, that holds a deed is recognized as the property owner.
The bill died after fierce opposition from environmentalists and the regulatory agencies that would have been affected.
Around the same time Evans filed the lawsuit, he hired a new set of consultants to open a fresh permit application with the Coastal Commission and start the arduous approval process over again.
Two developers with experience building in coastal Malibu, and familiarity with The Edge’s proposal, estimated the total cost of his lobbying and legal campaign was at least $3 million, and possibly two or three times that amount.
In a recent interview at her Studio City office, Evan's public affairs consultant, Fiona Hutton, refused to say how much the effort had cost. “We’re not going there,” she said.
An appraisal done last fall for Evans’ attorneys estimated that the combined value of the property and the houses would be roughly $66 million.
While Evans’ new team was busy redesigning the project to conform with most of the commission’s recommendations, the commission was undergoing dramatic changes of its own.
In nearly four decades as executive director, Douglas had fought off repeated attempts to remove him by powerful developers and their political allies. He succeeded, at least in part, because, under the rules he had helped write back in the 1970s, no single California politician could appoint a majority of the commission. That meant no single politician — not even the governor – could pick up the phone and give him orders, or have him fired.
But, shortly before the hearing on Evans’ project, Douglas had been diagnosed with cancer, and he was forced to give up his daily responsibilities later that month. He died less than a year later, in April 2012, at the age of 69.
Douglas’ second in command and hand-picked successor, Charles Lester, a former college professor, was equally committed to the environment but lacked his predecessor’s skill as a political infighter.
Not long after Lester took over, several commissioners appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown raised questions about Lester’s management ability. They complained about the time it took for developers to get permits approved, and about staff members failing to answer commission questions or respond to emails in a timely fashion.
Commission employees, almost all of whom signed a petition in support of Lester, feared a coup was underway, with the goal of cleaning house and restocking the agency with people who would be more sympathetic to developers.
That internal maneuvering, which ultimately led to Lester’s ouster three months ago, was nearing its climax in December 2015 when Evans and his partners stepped forward for a vote on their scaled-down plan.
They had incorporated virtually all of the commission staff’s recommendations. The houses would be moved off the prominent ridgeline, clustered on the mesa and none would be bigger than 10,000 square feet. They would be built and decorated with earth-tone materials, they’d have non-reflective glass to prevent glinting at sunset and they would employ so-called “dark skies” lighting – no outdoor lightbulb greater than 60 watts – to prevent the houses from glowing too brightly at night.
Tour The Edge's new homesite
Evans and his partners also agreed to pay an archaeologist and a Native American consultant to supervise all digging and empower them to stop the process and gather any culturally sensitive artifacts that might emerge.
But the Evans team refused to budge on the biggest issue: They were still planning to build five houses.
The atmosphere at the hearing, though, had changed from their first appearance, four years earlier.
Douglas was gone, his once-assertive staff was on its heels and, because the hearing was in relatively remote Monterey, many of the opponents had chosen not to attend.
Orchestrating The Edge’s campaign this time was Susan McCabe, the go-to lobbyist for wealthy land owners seeking guidance through the commission’s maze of red tape. McCabe declined to comment for this story.
McCabe met with most of the commissioners in the weeks before the hearing. Evans lobbied hard, too. He and his wife gave one new commissioner, Long Beach City Councilman Roberto Uranga, a guided tour of the Malibu hillside.
Uranga, 62, said the celebrity treatment did nothing to sway him and that he didn’t even recognize The Edge, who turned up in a baseball hat instead of his trademark cotton beanie. “Honestly, I prefer jazz,” Uranga said. But he was impressed with all of the changes Evans had made to the proposed houses to address the commission’s concerns.
Evans met another new commissioner, Mark Vargas, in late November at a stadium in Dublin just before a U2 concert. Commissioners can’t accept gifts in excess of $10 per month from applicants. Vargas said he paid for everything himself, including airfare, hotel and even a ticket to the show. He said he’d been in London for a Thanksgiving vacation, and he attended the meeting on his “private time.”
Hacmon, Evans’ project director, said the U2 band members frequently hold meetings at arenas before shows. For them, it’s a workday, and they’re trying to get as much done as possible. Vargas got no special favors, Hacmon said, not even a free ticket to the concert.
“Commissioners cannot be bought; our experience is they have the highest integrity,” Hacmon said. “It’s ridiculous that people think we walk in with big cases of cash and just drop it.”
In addition to the new commissioners who were lining up on his side, Evans had also won over some of his most vocal critics.
Sweetwater Mesa’s closest neighbor, Jim Smith, 76, was among the first organizers of the opposition. He said he was so appalled by the scale of the original plan that, while riding down the hill in an ambulance after a massive heart attack in 2011, he pointed to the ridge out the back window and told the confused paramedic, “If I don’t make it, don’t let that son of a bitch get away with it!”
But that was all water under the bridge by late 2015. Smith said Evans had been to his house many times in the intervening years to settle their differences. “He’s a hell of a nice guy,” Smith said. “I took a lot of flack for my change of heart. People thought for sure I’d been paid off, but I didn’t get a nickel.”
Evans also got support from former neighbor Davis Guggenheim, director of the global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
“I think the objections to this thing are overwrought,” Guggenheim said. “You can’t find more conscientious people than The Edge and Morleigh… they’ve gone to tremendous lengths to make sure these houses are environmentally sound.”
The long process has probably taught Evans more than he wanted to know about California politics, but he’s always been a master showman, and it’s hard to watch the video of the December hearing without admiring the casting.
Gone was the argumentative, precedent-citing former project manager who had done the original presentation. He was replaced by Hacmon, an artist and sometime model, who had interupted his architecture career in 2007 to play the title role in a National Geographic documentary, “The Missing Years of Jesus.”
Hacmon didn’t speak in the film. He provided the B-roll, walking through the desert with his long hair flowing and his soulful brown eyes searching the horizon. He had a similar look as he stepped to the podium at the December hearing.
“We are artists,” Hacmon told the commissioners. “For us, the mountain is the sculpture, and our inspiration…our intention is to disappear and become one with the mountain.”
The commissioners voted 12-0 in The Edge’s favor.
The Sierra Club has sued to overturn the commission’s decision, but legal experts call it a long shot. Barring court intervention, The Edge could break ground as early as next year.
Design and development by Sean Greene