Lucas, Edge, Romney: Celebrity Developers Spice Up Land Use Disputes

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By Paul Mindus, The Saint Consulting Group

Land use disputes often provide reporters with front page bylines because the conflicts invariably bring everyone out of the woodwork to have their say. Throw in a celebrity, and the dispute can unleash a tabloid frenzy of news coverage.

When George Lucas and Lucasfilms pulled the plug last month on plans to expand his film production studios in toney San Rafael, in the heart of Marin County, other cities like Richmond and Walnut Creek quickly sought his attention to relocate elsewhere in Northern California.

Citing continued community opposition to the expansion of Grady Ranch, Lucas raised hackles with Marin neighbors with an offer to sell the land to a developer to build low income housing there. The uproar  recalls other land use battles, particularly in but by no means confined to California, that have pitted proposals by wealthy celebrities that are vehemently opposed in local communities:                                                                                                                                                        

  • U2 guitarist The Edge lost a California Coastal Commission vote on his plan to build five luxury homes  of up to 12,785 square feet on a 156 acre tract in Malibu;
  • Steven Spielberg’s SKG (Dreamworks) withdrew its bid to build a 47-acre campus studio, including an eight-acre lake, in Marina del Rey on the site of the old Hughes aircraft factory;
  • Donald Trump first won his uphill battle for a $1.6 billion seaside golf resort in Scotland, then went on the warpath himself to try to halt a
    wind farm of 11 giant turbines that would spoil the view from his hotel, fairways and clubhouse.
  • Mitt Romney has hired a lobbyist to help ease planning approval for to renovate his La Jolla beachfront home in San Diego, replete with a car-lift for his four on-site cars.

The Arch Daily, a noteworthy architecture site, described how the Empire strikes back in a post headlined, George Lucas’s Development Woes: When Nimby Goes Bananas”.

Land use disputes are passionate, particularly for opponents who want to protect their property and to speak up about their community concerns. Add a celebrity, and the entire scenario becomes inflamed.

Advice for such occasions comes from a source particularly experienced in California land use disputes, John Watson, CEO of Chevron. He was asked recently what lessons he had learned from environmentalists on how to manage controversial projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. His reply was: “Get out there, be early, be factual and address peoples’ concerns fully.”

Paul Mindus is on the business development team of The Saint Consulting Group, email

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