Charmlee Walk Offers Opportunity to Explore Park Swap Proposal
• Wilderness Park’s History Is Intertwined with Environmental Goals and City’s Early Development
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
City Councilmembers Laura Rosenthal and John Sibert will be hosting an informational walk in the City of Malibu's Charmlee Wilderness Park on Saturday, March 9, at 10 a.m., to discuss the land swap that proposes trading 532-acre Charmlee to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's 83-acre Malibu Bluffs Open Space, located adjacent to the city’s 10-acre Malibu Bluffs Park.
The city has owned Charmlee Wilderness Park since 1998. The park consists of over 532 acres within the Santa Monica Mountains Coastal Slope Environment, according to city documents. Approximately 410 acres of the park are within the incorporated city boundaries. The park, which extends from PCH into unincorporated Los Angeles County at the top of Encinal Canyon, includes more than eight miles of trails, a picnic area and amphitheater that are sheltered in a grove of coastal live oaks, a nature center with displays of plants and animals—including live reptiles and insects, geology specimens, fossils, artifacts from the park's earlier cattle ranch days and earlier Chumash inhabitants. There is also a caretaker’s residence, restrooms and a native plant garden.
The park is home to a docent program and offers a variety of interpretive and educational programs, including school fieldtrips, nature walks and the popular monthly full moon hike, which enables visitors to explore the park by moonlight.
The park property, part of the original Topanga Malibu Sequit Rancho land grant, went on the block in the 1930s, when the Rindge family lost control of the Rancho.
The ranch was named “Charmlee” by Charmian and Leon Schwartz—their nicknames were Charm and Lee—who bought the ranch in the 1940s.
The Schwartz family lived on the ranch until it was destroyed in the 1956 fire, which burned more than 19,000 acres and 100 homes.
The property, which is located in a historic fire corridor, burned in the catastrophic 1930 Decker Fire and again in 1978.
Following the fire, the Schwartz family sold Charmlee Ranch to the Sky Company, a development firm that sought to build a golf course and housing tract on the ranch. Easement issues, unstable geology, inadequate water resources, escalating costs and then protests delayed the development.
In the 1970s, the County of Los Angeles acquired the property. When the City of Malibu was incorporated in 1991, the county agreed to lease the park to the new municipality. The county turned the ranch property over to the city as part of a legal settlement with the Lachusa Highlands Homeowners Association in 1998.
The agreement, crafted in large part by Lachusa Highlands residents Paul and Sandy Russell and attorney Frank Angel, includes a series of deeded restrictions that limit park activities to passive recreation.
“The express condition that the city use: operate and maintain Charmlee Natural Area and the improvements. thereon exclusively and in perpetuity for passive public recreation and coastal habitat conservation purposes,” the deed restriction states. “Passive recreation” shall mean resource-dependent outdoor recreation, including, but not limited to, nature observation, interpretation and education (including organized or supervised nature walks and astronomy observation), horseback riding, and hiking and picnicking.
“Passive recreation shall be inconsistent with and shall preclude, any commercial use of Charmlee Natural Area or the improvements thereon (except the existing small gift shop selling items related to the public use of Charmlee Natural Area and the understanding of its resource), and shall further preclude any recreational use depending on structures, including but not limited to golf driving range, tennis courts, ball fields, volleyball courts, swimming pool, use of powered vehicles of any kind, archery facilities, climbing or repelling towers, or equestrian facilities (except trails).”
Sports activists are on record as early as 2001 objecting to the limitations on Charmlee.
In 2006, the city acquired from the state 10 of the 93 acres of Bluffs Park. The transaction was a part of a negotiated deal that facilitated SMMC’s acquisition of Soka University while allowing the City to acquire the existing turf playing fields at Bluffs. The remaining 83 acres are operated by the Conservancy and owned by the state.
The city plans tentatively include the construction of two sports complexes on the 83-acre Bluffs property, including a main area with five playing fields, a skate park, a BMX course, and 175-space parking lot, and a smaller facility with seven tennis courts or two additional fields and a 75-space parking lot located in the western corner of the property and separated from the main area by Marie Canyon.
In exchange, for giving up plans for a campground with 40 campsites and a permanent camp host at Bluffs Open Space, the Conservancy would be able to install eight campsites at Charmlee. In the portion of the park that is in unincoporated L.A. County.
Swap critics point to numerous concerns, including Bluffs’ extensive environmentally sensitive habitat areas and numerous earthquake and landslide faults that may limit the amount of development on the site, and have indicated that any project proposed for the property can be appealed to the Coastal Commission.
Project proponents counter that the 10-acre western portion of the part is not ESHA and would enable the city to build two ball fields even if difficulties arise over the main park, doubling the city’s sports fields.
A number of residents have raised fire concerns, expressing fear that increased use of Charmlee, and unsupervised camping could increase fire risk in an area with a history of catastrophic wildfire. Other concerns include whether the Conservancy has adequate staff to maintain and patrol Charmlee, which is not near any of the agency’s other properties.
The walk on Saturday will offer an opportunity for participants to ask questions and learn more about the proposal.
Participants should wear comfortable shoes. Rain cancels. Charmlee is located at 2577 Encinal Canyon Road. Parking is $4 per vehicle.