The green house that Edge will build

MALIBU, California — The house that the U2 guitarist longs to build here would have a copper roof, fashioned to resemble fluttering leaves. Boulders that dot the property would be left in place and assigned charming names like Dinosaur Vertebrae and Cistern. The dirt dug up to build would be reused, when possible.

Yes, there would be a pool, but its central purpose would be to ward off fire should the local native plants not do the job. And every imaginable green building technique would be used.

But all of this does not mollify those who police the mountainside along one of the most gorgeous stretches of American coastline, where public access versus exclusive seclusion is an ever-raging debate that even a member of the most vocally Earth-hugging rock band on the planet cannot escape.

Standing high above the Pacific Ocean, wearing his signature black beanie, David Evans, or the Edge, his nom de guitar, made the case for his proposed 63-hectare development that would include five houses, his own among them. The project would “respect and honour the landscape,” he said, and set a new standard for building in remote areas by incorporating the environment rather than mowing it down.

“We just had this dream of building a house that was in perfect harmony with these hills,” Evans said. “We see it as something that could be a benchmark of sustainability.”

But Evans’ vision has attracted the ire of his potential neighbours in an exclusive enclave below, as well as the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy, who together deplore the road that would be built to get to the development — one that would snake up with switchbacks — and the amount of dirt trucked in and out of the site.

Other critics are also not fond of the homes themselves — ranging from 680 square meters to 1,115 — which they argue would diminish the skyline, one already pocked by the homes of some of those who are raising objections.

“What is so silly is they say it is so green,” said Paul Edelman, the chief of planning and natural resources for the conservancy, which has drafted a letter opposing the development. “But every time you drive up there, any savings you would have are shot by fossil fuel.”

The future of the project rests with the California Coastal Commission, a mighty and aggressively view-preserving state agency that has jurisdiction over most development near the coast; it is expected to rule on the proposal this summer.

The mountain skirmish features both traditional adversaries — those who would like to live in remote areas and those who would like to preserve them — as well as new and increasingly visible foes: green on green.

On one side are conservationists and the state agencies charged with preserving public spaces, views and access. On the other, Evans with his green building plans and U2 environmental credibility, enhanced with the blessing of Mark Massara, an environmental lawyer and former Sierra Club official.

“Rather than fighting every project,” Massara said, “it’s a much more prudent exercise to try and inspire other landowners to do things that are not only in the best interest of the environment, but also to protect the homes and enhance the values here.”

Evans and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, bought the five lots in 2006 with the Irish developer Derek Quinlan for $9 million. The designer of the houses, Wallace Cunningham, said his goal was to make them emulate their natural surroundings among the butterflies and rattlesnakes a few kilometres above the Malibu town centre. He also wants to make them “biographical,” and to that end, he stayed with Evans, his wife and their two children to study how they live in their current Malibu home.

But the conservancy and residents in the canyon below want none of it. They have complained most loudly about the 6-meter-wide, 490-meter-long access road, which they argue would be an eyesore and geologically unstable, and the massive amounts of dirt required for the project. Upsetting the ecosystem is also among the worries.

“This is the biggest and most problematic development we have ever had here,” said Lawrence Weisdorn, the president of the Serra Canyon Property Owners Association, which represents about 95 homeowners below.

There is also the question of whether the houses would be highly visible from the coastline — a big “no” under the state’s coastal act. Evans insists that concerns about visibility stem from misconceptions because the houses would actually be notched in the hillside, not standing on top. As for the road, he believes that an independent analysis conducted by the coastal commission would find it less onerous than some fear.

Steve Hudson, a district manager for the commission, described the amount of grading required for the project as “significant,” but said “the issues regarding geologic stability are still being evaluated.”

Evans said that fears about the size and scope of his project had been overblown, and that when people actually looked at his plans “they completely mellow out.”

He added, “There is this myth about how this road is going to be an eyesore, but it is so much better than anything up here,” an allusion to the faux Italian villas and their non-native, fuchsia flowers in the distance.

The project would respect and honour the landscape, and set a new standard for building in remote areas by incorporating the environment rather than mowing it down.