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, in the American state of California.

It's steep, rugged terrain, empty apart from small lizards, insects and the occasional rattlesnake. Chaparral and purple needle grass cover the ground, making it an environmentally sensitive habitat.

A biologist might stand here and notice what's at his feet. Anyone else is likely to be transfixed by the view: mountains plunging into a blue ocean that stretches across the horizon, like God's infinity pool.

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David Evans (aka U2's 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 Dublin to playing guitar for one of the most successful 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 Californian 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 consultants to get the required permits, public records shows.

They filed more than 70 technical reports 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 plants and animals on the hillside, or create an eyesore for neighbours and surfers riding waves off the beaches far below.

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 1,770km 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, such as 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."

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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 Sweetwater Mesa sale brochure had sketches of five boxy 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 US$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.

After Evans' purchase, the first objections came from his future neighbours, concerned about their views. They were joined by conservation groups, who said the land was an essential wildlife corridor and should be left untouched.

In an effort to soothe critics, Evans threw out the "boxy" plans and hired renowned architect Wallace Cunningham to design houses that, while large - they ranged from 7,220 to 12,785 square feet - blended more naturally into the rugged hillside.

“In my 38 years with the commission, I have never seen a project as environmentally devastating as this one”

As Evans' team worked, they consulted with the Coastal Commission, attempting to ensure the designs would win approval from the hard-to-please regulators.

Members of the commission are unpaid, apart from food and travel allowances. They usually can't stop owners from building on private land but state law gives them authority over the size and scope of any construction.

The impact on the "viewshed" - what people see from the ocean or while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway - would become an issue. So Evans hired consultants to persuade commissioners that the houses, which were shorter than zoning laws allow, would be unobtrusive.

Another concern was stability of the terrain. In the four years leading up to their first hearing, Evans and his partners spent more than US$400,000 for studies to demonstrate the rock beneath the proposed building sites would not crumble and trigger landslides.

To overcome opposition from a state agency protecting open space, Evans and his partners offered US$1 million to help build and maintain a public hiking trail.

While the surrounding hillsides were scattered with subdivisions, some containing dozens of homes, the Irish group's houses covered less than 3 per cent of their land. The rest of Sweetwater Mesa would be left undisturbed.

So, despite a groundswell of opposition, when Evans' consultants walked into their first hearing before the commission, in June 2011, 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 served as the agency's executive director since 1985. In a rich baritone, he 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 prominent on the ridgeline, and the access road would carve a mile-long scar across 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 Coastal Commission employee turned 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.

Then they dropped a bomb. The commission staff did not believe there were five 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 be entitled to only one house, but the staff was prepared to allow up to three. That meant two of his four partners - Gillian Delaney, Evans' sister; Chantal O'Sullivan, an antiques dealer who was ring bearer at Evans' wedding; and real estate investors Tony Kilduff and Paddy McKillen - would be out of luck.

Evans' team insisted the partnership was genuine. They played recordings 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 owners. Evans agreed to suspend the lawsuit to explore an out-of-court compromise on the number, size and location of the houses.

At about the same time Evans filed the lawsuit, he hired a new set of consultants to open a fresh permit application and start the arduous approval process over again.

Two developers with experience building in coastal Malibu, and familiar with The Edge's proposal, estimated the total cost of his lobbying and legal campaign was at least US$3 million, and possibly three times that amount.

The objections to this thing are overwrought. You can't find more conscientious people than The Edge and Morleigh
Davis Guggenheim

 

 

An appraisal done last autumn for Evans' attorneys estimated that the combined value of the property and the houses would be roughly US$66 million.

While Evans' team was busy redesigning the project to conform with most of the commission's recommendations, the commission was undergoing dramatic changes itself.

For nearly four decades, 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, no single politician could appoint a majority of the commission. That meant not even the state governor could pick up the phone and give him orders, or have him fired.

But, shortly before Evans' hearing, Douglas had been diagnosed with cancer, and he was forced to give up his daily duties later that month. He died less than a year later, in April 2012, at the age of 69.

Douglas' hand-picked successor, Charles Lester, was equally committed to the environment but lacked his predecessor's skill as a political infighter.

Not long after Lester took over, several commissioners questioned his ability. They complained about the time it took for developers to get permits approved and about staff members failing to answer commission questions.

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 sympathetic to developers.

That internal manoeuvring, which ultimately led to Lester's ouster in February, was nearing its climax in December, 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 ridgeline, clustered on the mesa and none would be bigger than 10,000 square feet.

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 the one four years earlier. Douglas was gone and, because the hearing was in relatively remote Monterey, many of the opponents had chosen not to attend.

Evans had lobbied hard. He and his wife gave one new commissioner, Long Beach City Councilman Roberto Uranga, a tour of the Malibu hillside.

Uranga, 62, says the celebrity treatment did nothing to sway him and that he didn't even recognise The Edge. "Honestly, I prefer jazz," Uranga says. But he was impressed with all of the changes Evans had made to address the commission's concerns.

Evans met another new commissioner, Mark Vargas, in November at a stadium in Dublin just before a U2 concert. Commissioners can't accept gifts in excess of US$10 per month from applicants. Vargas says he paid for everything himself, including airfare, hotel and a ticket to the show.

In addition to the new commissioners lining up on his side, Evans had won over some of his most vocal critics.

Sweetwater Mesa's closest neighbour, Jim Smith, 76, 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 last year. Smith said Evans had been to his house many times 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 neighbour Davis Guggenheim, director of global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, who said, "The objections to this thing are overwrought. 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."

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The process has probably taught Evans more than he wanted to know about Californian 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 original project manager. He was replaced by Hacmon, an artist and model who had interrupted his architecture career in 2007 to play the title role in documentary The Missing Years of Jesus.

"We are artists," Hacmon said. "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 favour.

Environmental organisation the Sierra Club has sued to overturn the decision, but legal experts call it a long shot. Barring court intervention, The Edge could break ground as early as next year.

Los Angeles Times