MALIBU, CA — “It’s official!” a Malibu Times headline from March 28, 1991 screams in huge, bold letters over a photo of the city’s first councilmembers beaming.
30 years ago Sunday, Malibu won a long, hard-fought battle for independence. The “21 Miles of Scenic Beauty,” named after a Chumash settlement whose name translates roughly to “The Surf Sounds Loudly,” was for decades a sleepy, unincorporated area populated by ranchers, farmers, surf bums, and Hollywood stars living in Malibu Colony. But as Southern California’s population exploded in the decades following World War II, residents feared that overdevelopment might spoil that famed scenic beauty beyond repair.
Residents fought off plans for an offshore freeway, a nuclear power plant, and many plans to replace septic tanks with a sewer line. In 1986, Los Angeles County approved plans for a regional sewer that would have been large enough to serve 400,000 people, and Malibuites would have to pay around $10,000 per person annually to support it. Residents feared the sewer would bring in so many new people that Pacific Coast Highway would need to be expanded into a full freeway.
Malibu had tried to incorporate a few times, and the LA County Board of Supervisors tried to fight them every time. But by June 15, 1990, courts had affirmed their right to vote on their fate, and Malibuites voted 84.25% in favor of cityhood, and just 15.72% against. On March 28, 1991, as The Times rejoiced, it became official.
March 2021 is probably not the happiest birthday the city has ever had. For its 20th anniversary in 2011, 300 people crammed into the newly-constructed Legacy Park for a day of festivities. 10 years later, it feels like 10 years until 300 people will get to be together again, and the only official celebration was a seven-minute YouTube montage of photos of the city’s history.
But Malibu is a city with some of the world’s most influential people living in one of the world’s most unique landscapes. There’s a lot to cover. To the soothing piano strokes of Mario and Amity Cadet, old-time surfers ride black and white waves. Ray Singer, a 66-year-old graphic artist, wins the city’s logo contest with towering green mountains rising from a deep blue ocean. Children paint fanciful ocean-life murals, play soccer, act in plays. Seniors paint flowers at the Malibu Senior Center. Politicians cut ribbons introducing new parks, libraries, and city halls.
Plumes of black smoke rush into the sky. Horses gallop under a sky bright-orange from flames. An army of firetrucks lines PCH. Evacuation routes are mapped. Hills once blooming with purple wildflowers are charred black. Just as the first photos surface of ecstatic residents holding yellow rebuilding slips, they are followed photos of empty beaches, “keep out” signs from Public Health, residents in masks, cars lined up at the new City Hall to get tested.
30 years later, a proudly independent city faces is tested as never before, from COVID-19 to political infighting to blackouts to the omnipresent threats of fires, floods, mudslides, erosion, and overdevelopment.
“For me it is emotional,” Mayor Mikke Pierson, who has lived in Malibu his whole life, said of the anniversary. “Malibu is a place of such beauty, which is clearly sacred to the residents. But it [is] also a place that the land and the people must be resilient. And we are. Living in Malibu is magical on one side and hard earned on the other side with all the issues we deal with on a constant basis (such as traffic and wildfires). Overall, I feel very blessed and our 30th anniversary is a reason to celebrate and appreciate that we are able to live in such a special place.”