Fire Concerns Extinguish Park Swap Deal

Charmlee Wilderness Park

Will the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) burn Malibu down?

That possibility seemed to be the driving force for the decision made Monday to return control of Charmlee Wilderness Park to the hands of the City of Malibu.

With memories of the Woolsey Fire still fresh in residents’—and council members’—minds, speaker after speaker came forward at the Monday, April 8, council meeting to describe the destruction that would befall western Malibu if a camp stove sparked a wild fire in Charmlee. Why the grave concern? SMMC Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston—also in charge of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority—has already been making moves to bring camping to the 532-acre wilderness park, located on the far western outskirts of the city of Malibu. Part of that proposed camping would include rules allowing the use of camp stoves, which residents pointed out needed lit matches to ignite.

Since 2014, the park has been under the jurisdiction of the SMMC, which ceded control of 83 undeveloped acres of Malibu Bluffs Park to Malibu in a five-year park swap lease. That lease term expires on May 28 of this year.

“If a fire starts in Bluffs Park, in the area we’re talking about that’s currently owned by the state and we have a lease hold over, it’s going to have major devastation to Malibu Road, just like how it did in 2007,” Council Member Skylar Peak—the only current member who was on council when the original swap was made—said Monday. “Not the level of destruction that can happen if a fire starts in Charmlee Park. Because if it starts up in the mountains very early in the morning, it will fan out, in the same way that our most recent fire did, and has potential to cause a lot more damage.”

Residents weighed in, including La Chusa Highlands Homeowner Association Vice President Gail Howard.

“We know that the conservancy has plans in place to make this a campsite, utilizing camp stoves,” Howard said. “Nothing could be worse than waking up in the middle of the night to a fire.” 

“Our neighborhood would be the first to go in the event of a campfire, and we’d have another Paradise situation,” Howard added. She was not the only property owner to draw comparisons to the massively destructive Camp Fire that burned in Paradise, Calif., in early November 2018. That fire left 86 dead and 17 injured, while essentially wiping the town of Paradise off the map.

Another resident, named Harriet, added, “No one in western Malibu will be safe. The only way to stop a wildfire is to prevent it.”

Mayor Pro Tem Karen Farrer summed up the sentiments.

“I’ll just say it,” she said. “This looks like nobody wants to have Joe Edmiston as their neighbor. Sorry. I’ve just got to spell it out.”

“I think we need to advocate to get Joe to be a better neighbor,” Peak replied.

One element council members said swayed them to let the swap expire was the purchase of three parcels of land last year, opening up the possibility of building ball fields and other recreational amenities on properties throughout the city, including one near Point Dume and two in the Malibu Civic Center.

“So, we have had the three new properties that were acquired last year, approximately 30 acres,” Farrer reminded council. She added, “I don’t see any reason to develop it [Bluffs Park], and I’m sorry to everybody who spent a lot of time on that, with ball fields or a pool or an amphitheater … I don’t see that as anything that’s needed, especially now, of course, with the three properties that we’ve acquired.”

Other residents agreed, stating the idea of building ballfields and other amenities would never come to be.

“Lou La Monte said he’d be the first to walk away if he can’t get multiple fields on this site,” resident Ryan Embree said. “Well, that was so long ago, Lou La Monte isn’t here.”

La Monte, a former council member and original champion of the swap, was termed out of office in 2018.

Among the five council members and 14 members of the public who spoke or donated their speaking privileges on Monday, there were no strong advocates for maintaining the swap. A number of speakers urged council to give them more time to conduct environmental impact reports and studies to see what could be done at the bluffs property.

“I think it’s premature for us to give up on the swap at this time,” Marianne Riggins said. “I think we need to really do the EIR.”

There was also no guarantee camping would come to either park.

“Joe Edmiston says he’s going to do a lot of things that don’t really happen … it remains to be seen what’s going to happen,” Mullen reasoned earlier in the evening. 

Both Mullen and Farrer moved to request more time to gather information on the swap, but that motion failed. The other three members: Mayor Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, Council Member Mikke Pierson and Peak, then voted to draft a letter to Edmiston informing him they would be letting the lease expire on May 28.