CALABASAS – An equestrian center on six bucolic acres is at the center of a bitter dispute over whether the panel charged with protecting California’s coastline bent the rules and could be endangering public health. The California Coastal Commission recently agreed to allow Malibu Valley Farms Inc. to continue operating stables and riding arenas near a stream that drains into Malibu Lagoon, even though it didn’t get a permit before building the facilities about six years ago. Its decision prompted the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network to accuse the commission of ignoring environmental laws intended to protect the coast from pollution, and to file suit to shut down the thoroughbred breeding facility. While Malibu Valley Farms did move some of its facilities farther from Stokes Canyon Creek – and agreed to other measures to mitigate potential problems with runoff – activists say it still violates regulations. Denial recommended The report urged that the permit be denied, along with any new development on 31 acres of environmentally sensitive habitat. “Development either is or would be inconsistent with the Coastal Act’s requirements to protect those … habitats,” it said. But Christopher Pederson, supervising staff counsel for the Coastal Commission, said the panel voted to let the facilities remain because members were satisfied that adequate protections had been provided for the stream. While Los Angeles County mandates a 100-foot setback, Pederson said there is no buffer specified in the Coastal Act and that the county’s land-use mandate would not be a legal standard for the equestrian facility. “I think it’s a case-by-case judgment call,” Pederson said. “Certainly, people should obtain permits before they construct development, but approval after the fact does not by itself relieve the developer of potential liability for initially constructing without a permit.” William Burke, one of seven commissioners to vote for the after-the-fact permit, said he was convinced the equestrian center had an adequate water-quality control system. `Well-reasoned’ Fred Gaines, attorney for Malibu Valley Farms, said he believes the Coastal Commission’s decision will be upheld by the Superior Court in San Francisco, where the suit was filed. “Their decision is well-reasoned and justified,” said Gaines, noting that cattle, sheep and horses have been bred in the area since the 1920s, a half-century before the Coastal Act became law. He said Malibu Valley Farms – a premier thoroughbred-breeding center – agreed to move operations, including corrals and stalls, 50 feet from the stream. But he said the farm would have been put out of business if it had been required to move them 100 feet, abutting a road. The company also has agreed to install a bio-swale – an indented area planted with vegetation intended to catch runoff – near the creek. Gaines said that after the facility was burned in a 1996 wildfire, the county granted permits to rebuild and the commission initially gave the company an exemption. That exemption was later revoked, touching off the protracted permit proceedings. But Mark Gold, president of coastal advocacy group Heal the Bay, called the commission’s decision one of its worst, noting that it went against its own staff report. “There was no finding to substantiate the commission’s decision,” Gold said. “It demonstrates it’s a political, not a legal, body.” Deanna Christensen, the planner who prepared the commission staff report, said staffers identified alternatives that would have protected the stream and nearby environment, including moving some equestrian operations or making them smaller. “They own property on the other side of the road,” Christensen said. “There are on- and off-site alternatives that would provide a 100-foot setback that would be in compliance.” A new staff report now is being completed in line with the commission’s decision. But in its suit, the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network says the farm’s livestock fencing on about 23 acres of chaparral and woodland – and two stream crossings for horses – would “allow animal waste to degrade the water quality” of the creek. “The coastal commissioners violated the trust of the people in failing to apply the very strong protections afforded the coastal zone,” said David J. Weinsoff, one of the Bay Area attorneys to file the suit. Weinsoff said the Coastal Act and other land-use laws regulating development along waterways are intended to protect the health and safety of residents. “The crux of the problem is the failure of the commissioners to take a proactive (position) to regulate development in this area of California. We think it’s a violation of the public’s trust.” firstname.lastname@example.org (818) 713-3731160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “We felt this was such an egregious violation of the public trust and the mandate the California Coastal Act has to protect natural resources in the coastal zone,” said Marcia Hanscom, the group’s managing director. “We do not believe the commission made findings of substantial evidence that backed up their decision, and we think we have a strong case to make in court that this was an illegal decision the commission made.” The Coastal Commission’s action caps an eight-year regulatory battle with the stable’s owners after the panel learned in late 1998 that the farm was operating stalls, corrals and two arenas without the required coastal development permit. The decision also came despite a report from the commission’s own staff that recommended denying the operation and noted that horse manure and other waste threatens water quality in the lagoon. “These types of pollutants are particularly significant here since Stokes Creek has been placed on the (state’s) list of impaired water bodies … in both 2002 and 2006, due to its high coliform count,” the staff report said.