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Secession Lessons: Malibu, Ten Years After - 2002-11-02

Malibu, California is a place renowned worldwide because of its expansive Pacific Ocean beaches, extravagant homes of movie stars, and as a popular location for shooting films and television. Whether as the setting for the weddings of actors Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, or as the coastal hideaway homes of such stars as Tom Hanks, Barbra Streisand, and Johnny Carson, Malibu conjures up an image of Hollywood glamour.

But along with the glamour, there are the mundane issues facing any community. For Malibu, a major issue has long been whether to have public sewers. Malibu is often mistakenly identified as being a part of the city of Los Angeles. In fact, it's never been a part of L.A., and now, 10 years after breaking off from the county of Los Angeles, Malibu is very much a thriving, independent city with its own city hall, planning offices and police and fire departments.

Malibu has an interesting history. For 4,000 years, Malibu was home to the Chumash Indians, and was then claimed by Spanish settlers in the early 1800s. From the late 1800s to 1930s, Malibu was the elite property of a wealthy Massachusetts family [Frederick and May Rindge], who protected their coastal land with armed guards on horses. When Malibu property was finally opened up for sale, Hollywood stars of the 1930s such as Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Coleman and Gloria Swanson moved in. And Malibu's reputation as an exclusive "colony" has continued ever since.

Now, as the nearby communities of the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood consider breaking away from the city of Los Angeles, area residents are studying the experiences of such cities as Malibu after their secession. Mary Lou Blackwood, a retired, 30-year resident of Malibu and one who is familiar with the community's businesses, shares some insights on Malibu's secession 10 years after.

Blackwood: "The proponents of secession are talking to [officials of] the most recent [areas] that became cities, so they can learn from their success and try not to make the same mistakes that they did. My concern is that no matter who or where it is, that they have the tax base to sustain their city. If they have the tax base, it's not a financial drain on the residents to have to try to maintain a city."
Kuo: "Has it been relatively easy, financially, for Malibu to be on its own?"
Blackwood: "No. The reason is that Malibu has had its share of catastrophic events: major fires, mudslides, rockslides, and floods. Every time this happens, as a new city, you don't have the [budgetary] reserves built up to help you maintain the city when you have these catastrophic events. The fire of 1993 was probably the worst that they have sustained. That was a 'biggy.'"
Kuo: "One would guess that with all the wealthy residents of the area, that the tax base would be sufficient to provide the finances for all these services the emergencies …"
Blackwood: "One would assume that. But it didn't necessarily prove out to be that way. There is a strong tax base here, but Malibu is not quite as wealthy as people would like to believe it is. There are some extremely wealthy people here. Those extremely wealthy people [raise] the bar whenever you look at the median wealth. It takes a while to go through the tax maze in becoming a city. Currently, the city is in a much stronger financial situation than they have been. We've also been blessed with not too many catastrophic events [recently]."
Kuo: "Were there actually a lot of people against Malibu seceding from the county? What were the arguments for staying [with the county]?"
Blackwood: "Most of them [opponents] felt the city could not afford to be its own city. Malibu became a city because it did not want sewers, so they fought the county of Los Angeles on that issue. The didn't want sewers because they wanted Malibu to retain its rural community. Once you bring in sewers, you're going to have development. So the people who wanted Malibu to be a city were proponents of no development. [When] the [secession move] did pass, and for those who didn't want it to [pass], they were already comfortable with the services they were getting."

Mary Lou Blackwood, former business leader and a long time resident of Malibu, California. Some Malibu residents are currently embroiled in yet another border issue: the rights of non-residents to have access to the city's beautiful beaches. In many areas along the Pacific Coast Highway, which runs along Malibu, beach access is blocked by residents wanting more privacy. The dispute centers on the differences in tidal-lines marking public access areas and the ocean-front property of homeowners.