Conservancy prepares to ‘override’ council vote


Following the City Council’s proposed ban on camping in Malibu, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is pursuing most features of its old parks enhancement plan, including 29 camping sites.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy board on Friday gave its executive director the go-ahead to begin a process for submitting a plan to the California Coastal Commission to create overnight camping sites in Malibu, among other parks enhancements. This proposal would rival the City Council’s application to the Coastal Commission to amend the city’s Local Coastal Program with a ban on overnight camping on public land. The SMMC board approved the motion by a 5-1 vote in one of the final days of a year that began with the city and the state agency working together on a common plan.

The SMMC is attempting what is known in the California Code of Regulations as a Local Coastal Program Amendment Override Procedure. The first step involves submitting its parks enhancement plan to Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas. He will have 30 days to decide if the proposal “meets the public needs of an area greater” than Malibu. If Douglas says the conservancy proposal meets the standard, then it will be forwarded to the City Council, which will have 90 days to decide if it wants to include the SMMC’s proposal in its amendment. If it decides against doing that, or does not make any decision by the deadline, then the SMMC can submit its proposal to the Coastal Commission for a vote.

The SMMC’s proposal includes most of the features from its 2006 plan, including a total of 29 overnight camping sites at the parks in Ramirez, Escondido and Corral canyons; 32 major events per year at the conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property and a 32-space parking lot at the top of Winding Way. But the one significant change from 2006 is the conservancy will pay for a consultant to draft an environmental impact report for the project. The lack of an EIR was one of the major arguments by city officials and Malibu residents against the 2006 plan. SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston said at Friday’s meeting the conservancy’s lawyers had advised the drafting of the EIR for this reason. However, he said after the meeting he did not believe this would silence the critics.

“I think we could we have an EIR large enough to fill the Angeles Forest that analyzed everything down to the increased cricket noise in Ramirez Canyon and we’d still have people who would claim inadequacy,” Edmiston said. “But knowing that, we’re going to make sure it’s a more than adequate document, an excellent document. We’re going to spend a huge amount of taxpayers’ money to make sure that this happens. And we’ll then have a document that’s pretty much bullet proof.”

City Councilmember Ken Kearsley, who did not attend Friday’s meeting, said on Monday he was pleased the conservancy was agreeing to an EIR.

“A third party [EIR consultant] is now going to have a say,” Kearsley said. “Hopefully, the EIR would say something like ‘Camping is not worth the impact.'”

The conservancy meeting took place telephonically with board members and SMMC staff stationed at several locations. A handful of Malibu residents came to King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas to speak against the state agency’s plan as Edmiston listened on the telephone from his location at Temescal Gateway Park.

“That area [Corral Canyon] has been notorious for partiers, for people who go up there to do drugs and raise hell,” said Malibu Township Council Board member Marshall Thompson, whose wife Susan Tellem, a City Council candidate, also spoke in opposition. He continued, “I don’t think it’s irrational for us to have fear about fire.”

The one dissenting vote on the conservancy board came from Linda Parks, a county supervisor from Ventura. She was also the lone vote of opposition when the conservancy approved its parks plan in 2006. Parks said she was concerned about the overnight camping, and the Malibu community’s anxiety over a perceived fire danger.

“Anything we can do to enhance our public safety, I’m all for,” she said.

What once appeared to be a finding of common ground between the SMMC and the city has quickly deteriorated into a conflict between two entities that have had a troubled relationship for many years.

A little more than a year ago the city had filed two lawsuits against the conservancy and in turn the conservancy threatened to file a countersuit following its board’s approval of a parks enhancement plan that would have avoided City Council review and gone straight to the Coastal Commission. Then, in late January, the conservancy and city staffs came to an agreement with an adjusted plan, which was endorsed in concept by four of the five City Council members, with Pamela Conley Ulich dissenting.

A formal plan, which included 26 overnight camping sites, was then endorsed by the Planning Commission in October at a standing-room-only meeting filled nearly entirely with opponents. The next month, the City Council, in a 4-1 straw vote, supported the overnight camping features of the plan. But then when the official vote was taken the next month, in the wake of the Corral Fire and with tremendous opposition to the plan from residents, the council unanimously changed course to propose a complete overnight camping ban.

“It reminds me of the relationships I had in high school,” Edmiston said after Friday’s meeting when asked about the situation with the city. “I thought that the girl liked me more than she turned out to like me.”

Most likely before the year is complete, the Coastal Commission will have before it two separate applications from the city and from the SMMC over a similar subject, but with two very different requests. Executive Director Douglas told The Malibu Times last month he would recommend the commission vote against the city’s proposal, calling it “contrary to the law.” Although he does not have a vote, his opinion is influential.

Mayor Jeff Jennings, though, says he hopes Douglas’ opinion doesn’t mean the City Council’s application will be disregarded.

“”I hope that the Coastal Commission will take a serious look at the application we’ve sent up and they’ll consider it fairly and they’ll either support it, or, if the commissioners believe it is inconsistent with the Coastal Act [the document that is the basis for all LCPs], they explain to us why it’s not consistent.”

If the conservancy’s plan is approved, this will likely trigger several lawsuits from various homeowners groups opposed to different features of the plan, a path that troubles Councilmember Kearsley.

“It’s terrible policy to have courts make decisions for cities,” Kearsley said, adding, “This thing was a train wreck waiting to happen [because of two major fires in the fall].”

Kearsley, who voted for the proposal to ban overnight camping, said he would have preferred the council members having endorsed the conservancy’s plan that went before them because it included fewer camping sites and other more restrictive features than the plan the conservancy is now pursuing. He said he only voted with his colleagues because their proposal also includes the linking of trails and other elements of the plan that are less controversial. And, if he were to have voted against their amendment, Kearsley said he would have been rejecting those features he liked as well.