Council Agrees to Explore Plan to Swap Charmlee for 83 Acres at Bluffs Park
• ‘Clean Swap’ Proposed by SMMC Executive Director Changes as Conditions Are Added to Proposal
BY BILL KOENEKER
Despite pleas from residents and others to kill it, the Malibu City Council on Monday night this week unanimously agreed to explore going forward with a proposed land swap that would give the city 83 acres of Bluffs Park in exchange for giving the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy 534 acres of Charmlee Wilderness Park.
Council chambers were filled by proponents and opponents of the land swap, who urged the council to take action one way or the other.
In a broad outline dictated by questions from City Attorney Christi Hogin, who said she wanted to know how the council wanted to proceed with the current negotiations, Hogin quizzed the council, after they had heard from the public, about what members wanted included in negotiations and what they did not want.
When the questioning was finished, the council voted on an outline that called for making the swap, but with provisos.
Prompted by Mayor Lou La Monte, the council agreed to some preliminary geotechnical and geology studies to see if more ball fields at Bluffs Park are feasible. La Monte said if the city council could not put ball fields on the Bluffs, “I would walk away.”
All the council members agreed that they should not be rushed into any decisions. The Conservancy wanted action by the end of this month.
Council members agreed to include a Ramirez Canyon settlement in the talks and by prompting from Councilmember Laura Rosenthal agreed to include attempts to resolve disputes in Escondido and Corral canyons.
The city attorney noted that the “clean swap” was a now more complicated deal and there were no guarantees the Conservancy would go for the city's many other points.
Hogin told council members since the Conservancy had already shown such a high propensity for overnight camping in Charmlee Park, it would probably be a non starter to enter discussion with the SMMC after an attempt to put further restrictions on overnight camping.
“The only way to prevent camping in Charmlee is to own it,” said the city attorney. “We know the Conservancy wants camping.”
The flip side of that if there is no trade, according to the mayor, is that the SMMC could continue to pursue building campsites on the Bluffs.
The upside being if the city owned the Bluffs land they could control what happens at the Bluffs and prohibit camping.
“We do need more information,” said Councilmember John Sibert.
Councilmember Joan House said it was her idea to offer a land swap to the Conservancy and its executive director Joe Edmiston. “It was not Joe’s idea. I went up to the mayor and said, ‘What do you think of a land swap?’ I gave the mayor all my reasons. There is no conspiracy. It was not initiated by Joe. Where did I get this idea?” said House.
She explained it was a need for sports fields in parks that got her to thinking about it. She said Malibu’s newest parks for the most part are, in effect, passive parks and offer little in the way for organized sports.
She cited Legacy Park, Las Flores Park, Trancas Park, which has a ball field, but does not allow league play and Charmlee Park, which is not suitable for ball fields, as all passive parks.
“How can we do it [acquire more parkland with ball fields for active recreation]? I was thinking of just a swap. Joe kind of maybe is working overtime. We did not know where it would go. Tonight, all we need is three votes to work on the details. There are not backroom deals.” House said.
La Monte, also recalling the early days of the discussions, said House mentioned the idea to him. “We talked briefly. There was no deal. No nothing. We sat down and said we were thinking of this. All the details since then are from Joe. He was asking for a special meeting. This meeting this evening is just that,” the mayor recalled.
“There is no done deal. If I did not live in Malibu, I would be insulted by how [the audience] talks to us. But that's how you roll,” La Monte added.
Sibert said he had not discussed the matter beforehand. “We have not discussed this until tonight. There is no backroom deal,” he said.
Sibert said he agrees there is a need for more ball fields. “The Conservancy has done a pretty good job of putting in parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains. If we did a trade we are not closing down Charmlee. There is not going to be development. We should slowly, carefully get plenty of input. However, I do support moving foreword and putting conditions on it.”
Councilmember Skylar Peak said Charmlee is “one of our best assets. I also think that it is important to have fields for sports. We can entertain this idea,” he said.
Rosenthal wanted to know how many campsites were proposed for Bluffs Park, what role camping and fire play in wildfires in Malibu and if Charmlee could be deed restricted to stop overnight camping if the city traded the land.
She said she thought it was ironic that a previous council allowed camping in the General Plan. “We wouldn't be dealing with this,” she added. “We don't need to take two or three years. We need fields now. But make sure we don't give away the farm.”
There was a wide spectrum of opinion from the public. Frank Rich, who heads the docent program at Charmlee, said he did not know if his docent group could work with the Conservancy. “We believe this trade threatens our program. There is a reluctance working with the SMMC.”
Both activist Hans Laetz and planning commissioner John Mazza issued caution in rushing the issue through the process.
Former Mayor Walt Keller, considered one of the founding members of the city, said “Charmlee was the first rite of the city. I hope you don’t go down in history as giving away the park,” he said. Keller also talked about the increased fire danger. So did wife, Lucile.
Activist Susan Tellem said it was like a train that had jumped out of control. She said the entire matter may be political since a former council member lives directly below the Bluffs Park.
She said that since those council members were helped by her political expertise during the council election, the action taken might be considered a payback for her helping during the election. “This might be different than we thought. Joe is no friend of Malibu,” Tellem said.
Parents also showed up, some with youngsters in tow, to tell the council more sports fields are needed.