Conservancy parks plan gets second try

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The proposal, which includes overnight camping in Malibu, is no less controversial than it was last year.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s plan to bring overnight camping to Malibu will be reviewed next Wednesday by the city’s Environmental Review Board in what will be the first public hearing on the proposal since it was revised this year. And this time, despite having some support from the city government, the SMMC and its sister organization, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation, will still likely have as much opposition as it did last year when its original plan led to hostile meetings and threats of litigation.

The SMMC plan involves the enhancement of its parks at Ramirez, Escondido and Corral canyons. It also includes development at the city-owned Charmlee Wilderness Park, and the creation of a trail system that connects several national-, state- and Malibu-owned parks. The proposal comes in the form of a proposed amendment to the city’s Local Coastal Program. This means it will require approval by the City Council and the California Coastal Commission. This is in contrast to last year’s version, which would have skipped the entire city process and only require Coastal Commission review.

Much of the plan still involves many elements that led to a great deal of hostility from Malibu residents last year. The council could be influenced by these residents to reject the project, or citizens groups might challenge it in court if were given city approval. The most controversial item is the plan for Ramirez Canyon, which calls for two day-use picnic areas designed to provide park amenities to accommodate disabled visitors and their families by reservation, and four new overnight campsites, including one accessible for physically disabled visitors.

Many Ramirez Canyon property owners have repeatedly stated they are opposed to overnight camping in Ramirez Canyon because of the risks of fires and the fear that emergency vehicles would have a difficult time getting there to control fires. Their attorney, Steve Amerikaner, could not be reached for comment on this story. The residents are also locked into other legal battles with the SMMC over its use of the Ramirez Canyon property.

SMMC officials say they have mitigated the possible fire concerns through various methods including the presence of large water supplies, banning the use of campfires and using specific materials in the development.

The other highly controversial element of the proposal is the eight overnight campsites at Charmlee Park. A plan to give the park’s nature center a makeover is not, so far, being debated. The Charmlee Park feature was not included in last year’s plan. Previously, the SMMC had proposed the enhancements at Escondido Canyon. But the city and SMMC’s staffs made the switch after a series of negotiations following the threat of both entities to sue each other.

However, there are some people in the area of Charmlee Park who say that camping is not allowed there because it is deed-restricted not to allow anything other than passive recreation. And others say, even if that does not mean camping is banned, camping shouldn’t be there anyway because it’s in a high-fire risk area.

“Camping was never planned for Charmlee Park,” said Malibu Township Council member Harriet Pollon in an interview this week. Pollon was a chairperson for a committee from 1974 to 1981 that transformed Charmlee Park from private property into a park.

“Charmlee was meant to be a day-use wilderness park because it is in such a high fire danger area,” said Pollon, who added that it did not matter that campfires would be illegal there. “You do not need to have a campfire to start a fire.”

But Paul Edelman, the SMMC’s deputy director of natural resources, told The Malibu Times that the conservancy has planned for potential fire threats.

“Our plan with what we’re proposing is as safe or safer than any campground anywhere,” Edelman said. “There are no campfires allowed, no barbecues.”

As for the possibility that overnight camping is not allowed there because of a deed restriction, City Attorney Christi Hogin said this week that it’s irrelevant. She said she did not believe sleeping at a camp constituted something outside of passive recreation. But even if it didn’t, she said the law could be changed. This would need to be done through the county, since the deed restriction was established when the county owned the property.

“The real question on the table is: is it a good idea to have some limited camping in Charmlee Park?” Hogin said. “If it is determined that it is a good idea, then we have to make sure to have the rules allow for camping.”

The other features of the LCP amendment include the construction of a new parking facility at Escondido Canyon Park to accommodate 18 vehicles and two trailer pull-ins to support public access opportunities for hikers and equestrians, as well as two self-contained restroom facilities. Also, the plan for Corral Canyon Park calls for 17 overnight camping sites in various portions of the park, with three for physically disabled people.

The Environmental Review Board, which consists of scientists from various fields, is only asked to look at the project’s environmental issues, and make recommendations about them to the City Council. The project will also go before the Planning Commission for an overall recommendation. Then it will head to the City Council for a vote on the LCP amendment. And lastly, the Coastal Commission will also get to vote on the amendment.

The July 18 meeting begins at 9 a.m. at City Hall.