A few years ago, U2 guitarist The Edge went for a hike, and there in the golden hills overlooking Malibu's cerulean waters, he finally found what he was looking for.
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, bought 156 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains and now want to build five mansions there, including their own dream home. From a distance, they say, their house will look like nothing more than scattered leaves on the ridgeline.
"These homes will be some of the most environmentally sensitive ever designed in Malibu — or anywhere in the world," the guitarist, whose real name is David Evans, said in a prepared statement.
Nearby residents, however, haven't bought his green pitch and say The Edge is endangering the beauty of one of Southern California's most famous beachfront communities along with U2's globally conscious image.
"It is going to look nice to the human eye but at what cost?" said surf shop owner and City Councilman Jefferson Wagner. "When is enough enough?"
The plan has sparked the latest development controversy in Malibu, where residents and city officials portray themselves as stewards of a blessed environment — even as the construction of palatial mansions and sweeping driveways turn vast swaths of that environment to mulch.
The project proposed by The Edge calls for a cluster of five, 10,000-square-foot homes. The two-story, earth-toned dwellings would be the maximum size allowed in areas designated as environmentally sensitive habitat.
Renderings show organic design features such as a pool that encircles one home like a moat. Another house would wrap around an existing pile of boulders while The Edge's own dwelling would feature curved roof lines to simulate leaves.
The Edge is also proposing to dig an access road up the mountain behind the exclusive Serra Retreat neighborhood of about 90 homes that stars such as Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and Britney Spears have called home.
"They're claiming it's a green environmental project, but you'd have to live in the houses a thousand years" to make up for the carbon dioxide emitted by the trucks hauling the dirt out, said Lawrence Weisdorn, president of the Serra Retreat homeowners association.
Still, the plan by The Edge has won the approval of Los Angeles County and in June is expected to go before the California Coastal Commission, which regulates coastal development.
Steve Hudson, regional supervisor of planning and regulation for the commission, said the project will have to overcome some hurdles. For instance, the road would require significant grading in a habitat of chaparral and coastal sage where landslides are an ongoing issue.
"We have concerns," Hudson said. "We're still evaluating the application in regards to impacts to the environmentally sensitive habitat areas and potential impacts to public views."
The Edge is also fighting a "not in my backyard" mentality among the well-heeled denizens of Malibu. Many fear the access road might someday be extended to the other side of the hill and pave the way for a flood of unwanted visitors from Los Angeles County.
Critics have seized on The Edge's green credentials saying recycling, composting and avoiding plastic foam cups is commendable but putting mansions in such a sensitive habitat erases all those good intentions. Flora and fauna may be lost, energy and water will be used to create and transport building materials, not to mention filling the pools and lighting up the mansions even if they are helped by solar panels.
The guitarist, who owns more than 400 acres in Malibu, declined a request for an interview but said in his prepared statement that his critics "don't have the facts or have ulterior motives."
His project manager Jim Vanden Berg says the road won't be turned into a highway or lead to more development.
"The Edge does not deserve to have his reputation tarnished in this fashion because it's contrary to his stance on the environment," Vanden Berg said.
The goal, he said, is to have the homes be Gold LEED Certified by adhering to the greenest building standards requiring use of recycled materials in construction and environmentally friendly amenities to reduce energy consumption. Among other features, the homes will have native landscaping, electric vehicle charging, solar panels and onsite wastewater treatment.
Evans recently listed the lots for $7.5 million each. Vanden Berg would not say how much the finished homes would sell for but noted Evans planned to pick his neighbors.
The guitarist partnered with high-end global hotel developer Derek Quinlan to buy the property in 2006 for $9 million. Both men, along with U2 frontman Bono, are currently involved in another controversial project in Ireland to transform the boutique Clarence Hotel in Dublin into a larger, five-star hotel, raising the ire of conservationists and environmentalists.
Separate property for sale
The Edge bought another property in Malibu's Latigo Canyon in 2007 for $20.25 million. Vanden Berg called the land an investment and said no development was ever planned for the site.
But Wagner, a Latigo resident, said a group met with the guitarist's local representative and reviewed plans for a subdivision. While the Latigo Canyon property is now for sale, plans are moving forward on the site near Serra Retreat.
Mark Abramson, director of watershed programs with the Santa Monica Baykeeper, said he has serious doubts about claims by The Edge that his hillside homes would be among the most environmental in the world.
"I've got to call bovine scat on that," Abramson said. "Why doesn't he just have a concert fundraiser to pay for his infrastructure?"