Coastal Commission Approves Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Efforts to Expand Camping on Public Parklands in Malibu
• SMMC Adds Malibu Bluffs Parkland to Potential Campsites •
The California Coastal Commission followed staff recommendations and denied the proposed Local Coastal Program Amendment submitted by the City of Malibu that included a prohibition on overnight camping on public parkland within its borders.
After almost 10 hours of reports and testimony at the panel’s meeting in Marina del Rey on Wednesday, the commission unanimously approved a competing LCPA override submitted by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which wants to expand public camping options and other uses on its holdings in the area.
A ban on overnight camping was sought by the Malibu City Council after its initial efforts to reach a compromise with the SMMC on the controversial issue met with strong opposition from members of the community who view overnight use as a source of increased wildfire danger even though no major California wildfire has ever been attributed to legal camping.
The plan proposed by the SMMC includes trails connecting coastal canyons and camping in those canyons, as well as increased use of SMMC property in Ramirez Canyon, and some residents voice concern that these areas would not be adequately patrolled and are subject to misuse that could endanger public safety.
Malibu testimony, including that by City Attorney Christi Hogin, City Manager Jim Thorsen, members of the city council and the Malibu Township Council, and a large contingent of residents, tried to keep the meeting’s focus on safety and wildfire issues, but a disconnect quickly became evident as representative after representative from recreation and inner city advocacy groups shifted attention to issues of public access, social justice and civil rights.
Several commission members expressed puzzlement that the City of Malibu continued to push for a ban on overnight camping, which is legal throughout the state on public lands, even though CCC staff and previous panel action had indicated, as the commission’s executive director, Peter Douglas, stated, “That a ban on camping was not subject to negotiation.”
A number of speakers and several coastal commissioners also indicated that they perceive what appears to be a contradiction between expressions of concern about legal overnight camping by city officials and the Los Angeles County fire department and the ongoing approval by both of residential development in high fire risk areas.
SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston told the panel that nine new residences were approved for the Ramirez area during the time that opposition was being raised to his personnel using the road for events at SMMC property at the end of the canyon.
Several speakers reiterated the contention that no wildfires have resulted from legal use of campgrounds. It was noted that, apart from lightning strikes and rare acts of criminal arson, most wildfires result from downed power lines or equipment sparks from power tools, discarded cigarette butts, backyard grills and other causes that reflect residential development in wildland interface areas.
However, to try to allay fire concerns, Edmiston said the Conservancy would work with Los Angeles County fire officials to have stringent wildfire safety and evacuation plans in place when specific park use plans come back before the commission. He said this would extend to SMMC undertaking, at its expense, the removal of private landscaping on Ramirez Canyon Road that has illegally spilled over onto the roadway. Edmiston said this would improve access and make the area safer for residents, as well as visitors.
Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan said the Conservancy’s camping plans would make all of the areas that are proposed for this activity “much safer.” Wan, a Malibu resident whose own home has been threatened by wildfire, told the local residents, “Camping isn’t the problem. Legal camping is not the source of fires.”
With a consensus on the wildfire safety issue, the commission reiterated its mandate to make public parklands accessible to all of the people of California. Commissioners unanimously agreed that the city’s proposed Land Use Plan amendment would diminish the range of potential access and recreational uses in the City of Malibu and is “inconsistent with the public access and recreation policies of the Coastal Act,” as the staff had reported.
Although numerous Malibu residents repeatedly referred to the millions of people who visit local beaches, there was an exclusionary undertone to much of the testimony by speakers who supported the SMMC proposal for overnight camping. When one speaker decried what he called Malibu’s “arrogance of self-entitlement,” locals in the audience, who were then soundly chastised by the CCC counsel, loudly booed him.
From an advocate for the disabled in a wheelchair who criticized what she called Malibu’s “separate but equal” handicapped proposal to Spanish-speaking grandmothers who spoke passionately about the impact of the outdoors on their families, the need to make the Santa Monica Mountains accessible to everyone bolstered the CCC staff recommendations.
Immediately before the commission vote, Edmiston sought a revision to add another area for camping that the SMMC executive director said would address all of the Malibu residents’ concerns. He said utilization of some of the 80 acres of state-owned Malibu Bluffs property—land that was originally acquired for camping in 1976 but encountered strong local opposition at the time—should calm most residents’ fears about canyon fires being swept seaward by Santa Ana winds through difficult to defend residential areas.
In addition to having ample public parking, Edmiston said the Malibu Bluffs site is at the water’s edge, near a fire station, and accessible to all law enforcement and other safety personnel because of its proximity to Pacific Coast Highway.
After the commission members approved the addition of the site to the LCPA override, there was a palpable tension throughout the meeting room, a reflection that this latest Edmiston gambit will likely put the city’s proclamations of its public welcome mat to yet another test.