Residents criticize conservancy’s parks plan

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The plan could go before the Planning Commission on Aug. 21 for a recommendation, and the City Council next month for approval. The California Coastal Commission has the final say on the project.

By Jacob Margolis / Special to The Malibu Times

Even after a revision that included several adjustments, the proposal by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and its sister organization, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, to bring overnight camping and other enhancements to parks in Malibu has been met with criticism from residents. Several people living near the parks planned for development came to last Wednesday’s Environmental Review Board meeting to voice their opposition.

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 municipal process and only require Coastal Commission review.

The ERB, 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 Planning Commission and City Council. The board members said they were concerned about how the increased traffic would affect the environment, as well as whether the plan would disturb the various plant species in the parks, specifically the more than 300 in Charmlee.

But one of the main concerns about the project for the residents and officials who attended the meeting is that the creation of overnight camping grounds will present a fire risk. The SMMC has said that should not be a problem because campfires are banned from the parks. Residents and other officials attending the meeting said that rule would likely be ignored.

“Human nature being what it is, some campers would ignore fire restrictions and light campfires,” wrote Dudley E. Sorenson, a former Los Angeles City Fire Department assistant chief, in one of the letters handed out by a resident at the meeting.

Harriet Pollon, who spoke on behalf of the Malibu Township Council, added, “The canyons connect, so a fire in one quickly becomes a fire in many. Cell phones do not work in the mountains. And the winding, narrow roads, which are frequently unlit, add to the danger of fire in the whole area.”

Another problem, some of the public speakers at the meeting said, was the ability to evacuate people if there were a fire. With several of the camping sites being dedicated to children with disabilities, the speakers said this presented an increased danger because of the difficulty in evacuating them.

Even if fires were ever started, SMMC officials have said they have mitigated the possible fire concerns through various methods, including the presence of large water supplies and using specific materials in the development of the sites to limit the spread of a fire.

The current plan by the SMMC is an updated version of a project first proposed last year. That plan called for enhancements and overnight camping at the parks in Ramirez, Escondido and Corral canyons. Calling it a public works plan, the proposal did not need to go before the city for approval, but rather only the Coastal Commission. Malibu officials and many residents cried foul, saying the plan violated the city’s LCP for several reasons, including that the city government had no input. SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston admitted he was avoiding the Malibu government last summer during a conservancy meeting, when he said he was doing so because Malibu officials did not support regional parks, an accusation city leaders have denied.

The city later filed two lawsuits against the conservancy regarding its original plan, and the conservancy filed one against the city in return. But the issues never went to court because earlier this year the city and SMMC staffs were able to reach a resolution. Overnight camping was moved in the proposal from Escondido Canyon to Charmlee. And the plan was transformed into an LCP amendment so it would need city review.

The proposal is tentatively scheduled to go before the Planning Commission for a recommendation on Aug. 21. It then could go before the City Council for a vote next month. LCP amendments must also receive approval from the Coastal Commission.