The Malibu City Council voted early Tuesday to allow the Malibu Triathlon to go ahead this weekend, a decision taken after a six-hour meeting that went past midnight and featured pleas from impassioned race supporters despite rising frustration in the city over the disruption of large commercial events.
For decades, the triathlon has drawn thousands of athletes of all skill levels to swim, run and bike along the coast to raise money for cancer research at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
But this year, the event was on the verge of cancellation after the belated discovery of the tidewater goby, an endangered fish, in an underpass on the biking course.
Organizers of the triathlon did not receive confirmation of the tidewater goby’s presence in the Zuma Beach underpass until late August. Their modified course route was not approved until early September. By then, Malibu officials insisted it was too late to grant a permit for the triathlon, which is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, because under city law, nearby residents were supposed to be informed of the event at least 32 days beforehand.
“I think we should make this happen and be done with it,” said Councilmember Paul Grisanti. Around midnight, Grisanti moved that the council greenlight the triathlon. The panel voted 4-0 in favor of granting the event’s permit, determining that the law allowed for a five-day notice of the event, that the event was well-publicized and that organizers had already mailed notices earlier this month to affected residents.
One council member, attorney Bruce Silverstein, abstained. Earlier in the meeting, Silverstein indicated that he wanted a clear legal justification for his vote, saying: “I can’t bring myself to approve something if I don’t see a code basis to do it.”
Before its decision, the council heard from scores of triathlon supporters.
“Do the right thing,” said Pamela Conley Ulich, who served on the council for eight years. “Tonight, it should be a unanimous decision to show the world what the Malibu way of life is.”
The event previously raised money in support of pediatric AIDS treatment but has since raised more than $18 million for Children’s Hospital L.A. Dr. Judy Villablanca, a pediatric hematology-oncology specialist at Children’s Hospital, told the council: “Our cancer program is absolutely dependent on philanthropic funding like the triathlon.”
A longtime Malibu resident, Villablanca acknowledged code enforcement issues in the city and the widespread view that the city is beset by those trying to evade the permitting process for profit or personal gain. Earlier in the meeting, council members had railed against a party thrown by Kourtney Kardashian’s lifestyle brand Poosh at a Malibu mansion over the weekend, with Silverstein explaining how the event’s planners misled the city to secure a permit.
“I would actually like to see the city sue for fraud,” Silverstein said regarding the Poosh event, emphasizing that Malibu was not an “event location” but a town with a rural character that needed to be upheld.
Villablanca insisted that the Malibu Triathlon, now in its 38th year, was hardly comparable to an influencer junket.
“The triathlon organizers worked very diligently with the city and multiple agencies — and you know how hard that is — to meet all the requirements,” she said. “I don’t think this is the event for you to draw the line with.”
“This program is so important because it has regional economic impacts,” said Danielle Borja, the president and CEO of the Greater Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce. Borja said that five hotels in nearby Agoura Hills had logged more than $100,000 in reservations from those involved with the triathlon.
The uncertainty surrounding this year’s event is partly the result of last winter’s record rainstorms. For years, the triathlon’s bicycling course has run through the Zuma Beach undercrossing at Busch Drive, but storms left the underpass flooded and covered in water and sediment.
In past years when the underpass flooded, organizers of the triathlon constructed a temporary ramp for bikes to travel over, organizers said. But the presence of the tidewater goby meant the road could not be cleared nor a temporary ramp erected — at least before the triathlon.
The Malibu Triathlon typically features a long bike ride from Zuma Beach north to Leo Carrillo State Park. The approved racecourse is shorter and less scenic: Participants will cycle a series of 3.6-mile loops through Zuma Beach’s parking lot and on one lane of Pacific Coast Highway, repeating the loops three to four times.
“It’s the safest route we’ve come up with,” race director Brennan Lindner told Malibu officials last week.