State Supreme Court Lets Veto Ruling on Overnight Camping Stand
• Conservancy Honcho Vows to Continue Fight for Increased Public Access to SMMC Property
BY BILL KOENEKER
The attorneys for the City of Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy were working overtime as they both sent out press releases last week on the California Supreme Court letting stand an appellate decision in favor of Malibu in a lawsuit over what the municipality called "forced amendments to Malibu Local Coastal Program," and what the SMMC called "the court's denial of petition for review and request for depublication in the City Of Malibu versus the California Coastal Commission, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy et al."
SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston said, "Public access for the tens of millions of dollars worth of parkland acquired for all the people of California is not a fight we will give up on."
The statement by the Conservancy indicated that Chief Staff Counsel Laurie Collins "will refile the plan that the Coastal Commission has previously approved, in compliance with the lower court's decision."
City Attorney Christi Hogin said that the appellate court held that the Coastal Commission's actions were beyond the power of the commission, and the state Supreme Court denied petitions filed by the coastal agency and the SMMC seeking review of that decision of the appellate court in favor of Malibu.
"Over the city's objections, the Coastal Commission approved an LCP amendment in 2009 to accommodate the SMMC/MRCA proposed 'Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan.'
That plan amounts to a mini-LCP which would establish different uses and standards for Conservancy-owned property in Malibu than for all other property in Malibu and was particularly controversial for proposing overnight camp grounds in high fire danger box canyons," Hogin noted in the city's press release.
With both courts behind the city, Hogin chose some strong language to describe the situation as she saw it.
"It's hard to imagine a more stark affront to local control than what happened in this case. The petitions in the Supreme Court made the astonishing argument that the commission enjoys 'primacy over local governments' and that the commission has a 'supervisory role' over cities. This case rejects that view and reaffirms that the Coastal Act preserves for local government the ability to determine the precise contents of its LCP. Hopefully, in the wake of the court's ruling, the city will be able to assume its role in the development of policies and work with the Conservancy to achieve our shared goals of public access, a world class trail system and wonderful parks."
The petitions to the state Supreme Court were made after a state Court of Appeal sided with the City of Malibu in a lawsuit filed by the municipality against the Coastal Commission's approval of the SMMC's park plan, which included a controversial provision for overnight camping in several coastal canyons.
In an unanimous decision, the appellate court said, "We decide the California Coastal Commis sion acted in excess of its jurisdiction when it approved amendments to the city's certified local coastal program at the request of state agencies, over the objections of the city, where the amendments were not requested to undertake a public works project or energy facility development, but instead changed the city's land use policies and development standards as they would apply to future plans for development within the city," the justices wrote.
Hogin praised the decision for limiting the CCC's authority. "The Conservancy and the Commission basically teamed up to rewrite Malibu's LCP as it would apply to the Conservancy's several properties scattered throughout Malibu and tried to do it by invoking an obscure provision of the Coastal Act meant for energy facilities and regional public works projects. The bottom line is that the court agreed with our core argument that the commission exceeded its jurisdiction when it invoked the narrow 'override' provision to purport to adopt comprehensive changes to the uses and development standards applicable to the Conservancy's holdings in Malibu (a virtual mini-LCP) just for Conservancy land."
The litigation has it beginnings in 2007 when the SMMC asked the city to amend its LCP to add land use policies and development standards, in part, to permit the Conservancy to develop four park properties in Malibu and allow overnight camping.
In December 2007, the Malibu City Council approved an amendment to the city's Local Coastal Program.
Referred to as Malibu's LCP, the document included many changes proposed by SMMC, including a plan to provide the framework for a proposed trail network to link various publicly owned properties throughout Malibu, but did not include the overnight camping proposed in the SMMC's plan in various coastal canyons.
SMMC officials rejected Malibu's plan and submitted to the Coastal Commission its own proposed LCP amendments, asserting an override provision.
The Conservancy asked the commission to declare, in effect, that override procedures contained in Coastal Commission's regulations authorized the SMMC to allow the Coastal Commission to certify the SMMC's proposed amendments to Malibu's LCP over the objections of the city.
The appellate court indicated, "It is undisputed that the [SMMC] overlay district substitutes the land use policies and development standards of the Conservancy for the policies and standards certified for Malibu in 2002; and it does not seek a permit to develop a public works project."
The justices also opined that, "The Conservancy's overlay district eliminated city participation in the design or development of parkland and trail improvements.
"In short, the Conservancy proposed to override Malibu's land use plans and policies and substitute new ones over the objections of the city, not for the purpose of developing a public works project, but so that in the future development and programs could be approved by the CCC, thus enabling the Conservancy to avoid having to ask the city for coastal development permits."
In an aside that might make Malibu residents' brows furrow, the court said, "Moreover, the Conservancy's new land use policies did not change the rules only for its own park properties, the overlay district prohibits any fire outside any park facility, including backyard fires and barbeques, on any public or private property, within 20 feet of any flammable vegetation."
After public hearings before the Coastal Commission, when it heard both the SMMC's plan and the city's, the coastal panel found in favor of the SMMC and rejected the city's LCP amendment.
The city filed a lawsuit and in July 2011, the trial court found for the city opining the Conservancy's plan was just that a "plan" rather than a specific public works project and did not qualify for the override procedure. The SMMC sought to have the decision overturned at the appellate level.
However, the appellate court, in a published opinion turned back the Conservancy at very turn.
"This argument violates basic principles of statutory interpretation cited below, and contrary to the Conservancy's claim, courts do not defer to the Coastal Commission's interpretation of the scope of its authority under the statute. The Conservancy has no relevant authority or rational explanation for its position and we find nothing in the Coastal Act indicating a legislative intent to distinguish a public works project from an energy facility development for purposes of permitting the Coastal Commission to override a local government's land use policies and development standards."