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Originally published Thursday, June 28, 2012 at 5:42 PM

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Young surfer councilman fights waves of change in Malibu

Malibu's youngest city councilman, elected in April, brings youthful exuberance and an anti-development attitude into office.

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES — Tooling along Pacific Coast Highway in his GMC pickup, Skylar Peak scans the break at Surfrider Beach. Bella, his dog, is leashed in the truck bed, her mohawk shaded by a red, white and blue surfboard bearing the message VOTE PEAK.

As he pulls into the beach parking lot, Peak shouts "Waddup?" and waves at some surfer pals. In a few hours, the Malibu native will paddle out. But at the moment, he has more on his mind than nose-riding.

In April, this celluloid ideal of a waterman became the youngest person elected to Malibu's City Council. His supporters are looking to Peak, 28, to help preserve what's left of their community's rural flavor. He freely voices opinions such as: "I'm not that stoked about development."

With the prospect of more than 1 million square feet of construction looming and with the sewer-versus-septic battle continuing to rage, Malibu stands at an environmental and cultural crossroads. Some residents view development as vital to the city's economic health. Others fret that their beach town is turning into Rodeo Drive west, with posh boutiques supplanting local shops that can't afford rising rents.

Big-money projects are popping up all over town. Software mogul Larry Ellison is building two restaurants near the pier. A Whole Foods is coming to the Civic Center. A developer has proposed a 146-room luxury hotel on 28 vacant acres at Malibu Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway.

Although many locals welcome Peak's exuberance, longtime observers say he is up against an entrenched leadership that has long been too cozy with developers. Some wonder whether he's prepared for the rigors of city governance.

"He'll find out very quickly with this group that's in there ... it's join us or go out by yourself," said Jefferson "Zuma Jay" Wagner, another surfer who won a council seat on a similar slow-growth pledge but did not seek re-election.

Peak swaggers into Malibu Kitchen for a late-morning coffee. Emerging in his faded black T-shirt and green sweatpants, he gives a surfer's stink eye to the Lanvin and Missoni boutiques across the Malibu Village shopping center.

"They don't belong here," he says.

Third generation

Peak, a third-generation resident, hungers for the cowboy charm and what he calls the magic of the Malibu his grandparents knew, where people rode horses at surf's edge and open space ran as far as the eye could see.

He attended the public schools and graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu. "I didn't want to go (to college)," he said. "I wanted to surf."

But his father, Dusty Peak, an electrician, surfer and water-quality activist, insisted.

As was his dad, Skylar Peak is a fixture in town. At Malibu Seafood, Bonnie Decker, whose family homesteaded in Malibu in the 1860s, puts Peak's salmon lunch order on his tab.

During one of Malibu's wildfires, Peak doused embers with John Cusack. Mike D of the Beastie Boys is "like family." Mel Gibson's son Milo is a buddy and co-worker at Peak Power Electric, the electrical contracting company Peak took over after his father died.

Peak has honed his image, serving on the board of the Malibu Boys & Girls Club and as a local parks commissioner. He said he would love to see wealthy Malibuites buy up remaining developable land and create small parks or open space.

He expresses dismay that the canyons where he and friends used to roam are dotted with megamansions, and that roads that once went on for miles are gated.

The old-Malibu way of life was associated with now-departed businesses, such as Hows Market, where, locals recall, a child who forgot his money could buy a doughnut on credit and clerks asked regulars: "How's your horse"

The 17-acre Trancas Country Market that long housed Hows is now owned by a Wal-Mart heiress and her husband. It is undergoing renovation and expansion.

Sewers and development pressures, Peak fears, could hasten the demise of the Malibu he cherishes.

Sewers versus septic

Malibu formed its own government in 1991 to stave off Los Angeles County's efforts to replace septic tanks with a sewer system, a change locals worried would bring unfettered development. In 2009, after years of court battles with the state over coastal pollution, the city agreed to install sewers in the Civic Center area. Peak said he would push Malibu to reconsider.

He also opposed California State Parks' plan to reshape the polluted Malibu Lagoon to restore habitat and water quality. Peak sided with activists who contended the project would destroy habitat and deplete the world-famous wave action at Surfrider. The state began the work this month.

A community like Malibu, with so many issues swirling, would be a serious challenge for any civic leader, said Glenn Hening, creator of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to protect the world's oceans and beaches. Unlike Peak, the foundation supported the state's lagoon plan.

Hening said Peak and his surfer friends have a reputation for being hostile to outsiders at Point Dume. "Somehow they never quite learned what the word 'aloha' means," Hening said. "Let's hope that kind of territorialism is not reflected in the votes Skylar casts on issues confronting his community."

Others say Peak's fresh perspective has buoyed Malibuites in search of an advocate. John Sibert, 75, a retired university professor who was re-elected to the council in April, is excited about having "some younger energy" on the panel. But a newcomer like Peak, Sibert cautioned, needs to recognize that, "We're probably the most complicated little city of 13,000 in the country."

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