Thumbs up on Bluffs deal

The deal will solve a 20-plus year conflict over the ball fields at Bluffs Park.

By Kevin Connelly/Special to The Malibu Times

and Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

The Malibu City Council and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Board at separate meetings Monday night unanimously approved the major land-swapping deal that will allow the city of Malibu to purchase the ball fields at Bluffs Park.

There were no public speakers that vocally opposed the deal at either meeting. The agreement must be approved by the state Public Works Board and an appraisal must be done to determine the value of the 10-acre portion of Bluffs Park the city will purchase.

With the agreement, the California Department of Parks and Recreation will transfer the 93-acre Bluffs Park, located on Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu Canyon Road, to the SMMC. The city will then buy the 10 acres of the site that includes the ball fields, the Landon Center building and a running path. The money will go to State Parks, which will put it toward the purchase of the Soka University property, a 600-acre site located in the Santa Monica Mountains that several state agencies and the National Park Service are trying to purchase. Additionally, money that State Parks had set aside for Malibu to use to relocate the ball fields, about $7 million, will go toward the Soka Purchase.

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If everything continues on a smooth path, the deal will solve a 20-plus year conflict over the ball fields at Bluffs Park. The issue deals with State Parks not wanting Malibu Little League and Malibu AYSO to use the state-owned Bluffs Park because state parks are not supposed to be for active recreation purposes. State Parks cannot directly sell the land to the city because California law prohibits that except in a special circumstance. However, the law does allow State Parks to transfer land to another state agency such as the SMMC.

“I remember hearing about this debate about 15 years ago, and it was ancient history then,” said SMMC Chair Elizabeth Cheadle, who went on to say, “It has been an amazing story, and to see it come together at this time when it is such a win-win-win… it is one of those great moments.”

About 30 Malibu Little League and Malibu AYSO athletes attended the meeting, with several of their parents speaking in favor of the agreement. They cheered after hearing the unanimous verdict from the board.

Dave Brown, a member of the SMMC Advisory Committee, which meets with the board and makes a recommendation vote prior to the board vote, stressed some hesitation with the deal, although he voted in favor of it. Brown, who is also a member of the Sierra Club’s Santa Monica Mountains Task Force said he did not like starting a precedent of the state giving up parkland, which it is supposed to preserve, for ball fields and other active uses.

“Cities need to provide their own land,” Brown said.

Brown said that the situation that led to the Malibu sports leagues using Bluffs Park should not have happened. The dispute between the city and State Parks goes back to 1982 when State Parks sought a permit from the California Coastal Commission to evict Malibu Little League from its ball fields at the Malibu Lagoon, which State Parks wanted to convert to native wetlands. Following a slew of lawsuits, a settlement agreement filed in August 1982 in Los Angeles Superior Court granted the Little League a home at the state-owned Bluffs Park through 2002.

As the end of the lease approached, State Parks made it clear that it was not interested in renewing it. The city was able to persuade State Parks to allow the Little League to stay on the ball fields at the park until the problem was solved.

“We shouldn’t have let this happen,” Brown said. “We’re fixing it, and I’m glad we’re fixing it.”

There was no hesitation at the City Council meeting, which took place at City Hall, just a few hundred yards away from Webster Elementary School, where the SMMC Board was meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Andy Stern said, “This [purchase of Bluffs Park] makes me proud to be sitting up here today [as a member of the City Council].”

The 5-0 vote evoked a round of applause from many of the meeting’s attendees. A few community members thanked Councilmember Jeff Jennings, who has been at the forefront of the negotiations, saying he had put in time and effort far beyond the call of duty to acquire Bluffs Park for the city.

An appraisal must be done to determine the value of the 10 acres of Bluffs Park the city will purchase. Jennings said earlier this month that he had heard the 10 acres was estimated to be worth from $1.5 million to $2.5 million. According to a report written by City Manager Katie Lichtig, the money to purchase the property will come from the city’s general fund reserve, which she wrote is expected to reach $9 million at the end of the 2004-05 fiscal year. The council will have to approve the final purchase.

There is no set timeline for when the purchase will be finalized, but Jennings said earlier this month that he hopes the whole transaction would be finalized by April.

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