Mayor Jeff Jennings speaks to television and radio reporters outside of City Hall following Wednesday morning's meeting. The overnight camping issue has attracted media from throughout Southern California in the wake of Malibu's two fires.

The proposal heads to the California Coastal Commission

By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

In a sharp reversal of last month’s straw vote, the City Council on Wednesday unanimously rejected the portion of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s parks access plan to bring overnight camping sites to the city of Malibu, except for the two proposed for disabled visitors at Ramirez Canyon Park. The council instead decided to pursue amending Malibu’s Local Coastal Program to ban overnight camping in parks and recreation areas within the city limits. The California Coastal Commission, which usually supports public access, votes on LCP amendments.

“The best thing for Malibu is not to allow overnight camping,” said Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Conley Ulich, who was the lone council member not to support overnight camping when the council first heard this issue last month. She added, “I want to commend [the rest of the council] for rethinking this.”

The city’s LCP—the state-drafted document that sets zoning and building standards for Malibu development—allows overnight camping in parks and other recreation areas. The proposal from the SMMC, which was developed through negotiation with city staff, would have changed the LCP to limit camping to 26 sites within the city. The council had initially supported the plan last month by a 4-1 margin in a meeting at which only a straw vote was taken. But in the wake of two fires a little more than a month apart and community pressure, the council decided to go a different route on Wednesday.

Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, blasted the decision.

“What you’re really saying is, ‘No we don’t want people from the outside to come [into Malibu] and camp if you can’t afford 50 bucks,'” said Edmiston during the meeting, referring to the cost of overnight camping in some of the parks in the unincorporated portion of the Malibu area. Conley Ulich responded by giving some of the prices for Malibu area parks that are cheaper than that.

Councilmember Ken Kearsley said although he was changing his vote from the last meeting, he still did not agree with the residents who have claimed overnight camping creates a fire danger.

“There is not one scintilla of evidence that as far as I can see that camping is going to start any more fires,” Kearsley said. “There are illegal campsites that cause fires. But legal campsites, supervised, it doesn’t happen.”

Councilmember Sharon Barovsky, who made the motion Wednesday for the council vote, said she decided to oppose overnight camping after speaking with “rational people” in the community.

“I don’t think with anything since I’ve been on council have I communicated with so many people, many of them rational and sound, and of course many of them not so rational,” Barovsky said.

Barovsky added that city officials and the residents opposed to the Conservancy’s plan have an uphill battle to convince the public access-supporting Coastal Commission to support a ban on overnight camping.

“Let us fight the fight,” Barovsky told the audience. “You have a lot of work to do.”

The rare morning meeting was a rowdy affair full of many boos and cheers from the nearly 100-person audience, with Mayor Jeff Jennings having to slam his gavel several times to quiet the scene as television cameras from news stations throughout Southern California looked on.

With the issue moving to the California Coastal Commission, Edmiston says he expects an outcome more to his liking.

“Fortunately, this isn’t the end of the battle,” the Conservancy head said in a press release issued a little more than an hour after the council vote. “We will bring our case to the California Coastal Commission where, unlike at the Malibu City Council, the broad public interest can get a fair hearing.”

The Coastal Commission will not only be presented with the city’s LCP amendment sometime next year, it will also receive a proposal in some form from the SMMC that calls for overnight camping at Corral Canyon, Escondido Canyon and Ramirez Canyon as well as 32 major events (parties of up to 200 people) per year at the Conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property. The Conservancy first proposed this concept last year when it pursued what it called a Public Works Plan, which would have only required Coastal Commission review and no input from the city government. After the city of Malibu filed a lawsuit, the Conservancy and the city staff in January came up with the compromise, which was rejected by the council on Wednesday.

Edmiston said in an interview on Friday he regretted backing out of the original plan.

“We compromised with the city in good faith expecting the same from them,” Edmiston said. “I was talking on a weekly basis with city staff, obviously to no avail.”

Conservancy staff and its attorneys are now deciding how they will approach the Coastal Commission with their resurrected proposal, whether it be in the form of a Public Works Plan or some other method.

“We’re not letting the grass grow under our feet,” Edmiston said. “Whatever avenues we’re going to pursue, we’re going to be timely in pursuing them.”

Regardless of what decisions are made by elected and appointed government officials, many are convinced the final verdict will be decided through litigation, something city leaders fear will not have a good outcome.

“I never think it’s good to have a judge decide land-use issues,” Barovsky said.