Equestrian campground faces emotional opposition

Opponents of the proposed equestrian campground claim it’s a major fire hazard and just plain ugly. Supporters say all concerns are being addressed.

By Lisa Sweetingham / Special to The Malibu Times

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then some Malibu residents think the proposed Ronald Reagan Equestrian Campground (RREC) is a real dog.

Since unveiling its plans last month for a horse-and-rider camping complex in Malibu Creek State Park, the RREC Committee has faced a nascent but vociferous opposition to the development on the grounds that it will create fire hazards, increase water pollution and is just plain ugly.

“The idea that someone’s considering this monstrosity of a facility there, it just sticks in my craw,” said Malibou Lake resident Ted Fulton, who spearheaded the “Save the Meadow” campaign after reading about the campground in The Malibu Times [www.malibutimes.com/articles/2009/09/17/news/news4.txt]. “It’s not like I’m anti-horse. My wife’s an avid horseman. It’s just an abhorrent location.”

The proposed equestrian campground, to be set on seven acres of flat, grassland near Mulholland Highway and Cornell Road at the site of the former Ronald Reagan Ranch, will feature 30 campsites, with two corrals at each site, and access to 500 miles of public trails.

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When Fulton, a 48-year-old airline pilot, learned that the design plan called for pipe corrals, RV parking and manure dumpsters, he envisioned “a major eyesore” along the Mulholland scenic corridor.

“Sometimes I’ll be driving home from work after an all-nighter from New York,” he said “and there’s not a single light on that road. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

In a week’s time, Fulton put up a Web site and blog [savethemeadow.blogspot.com], and was sending ’round the clock e-mails to environmental agencies, government officials, neighbors and reporters, urgently alerting them to the dangers of horse urine and feces near the watershed and fire pits in the parks.

His gung-ho blog postings haven’t always helped his environmental advocacy aims. As of last week, he had accused an Agoura newspaper of conspiring to suppress his free speech, had posted anonymous rumors that a RREC supporter had financial interests in the campground and had drawn ire from a Heal the Bay employee for posting her private e-mail to him as proof of the agency’s support.

For the record, Heal the Bay has no official position yet. But many others do, and their biggest concern about the campground is fire.

“This is unimaginable to allow 31 open camp fire pits in this already vulnerable and threatened area,” resident Dayle Dalton wrote in an e-mail to The Malibu Times after Fulton rallied his interest. “We are threatened by fire throughout the year and one spark from one of the campfires would destroy our entire community!”

“Each fire season we anxiously watch the skies and listen for fire sirens,” wrote Nan Kane, a 20-year resident of Malibou Lake. “Those of us in the dry, brush covered hills of the Santa Monica Mountains are always in or near the path of the Santa Ana winds. These campsites would be a year-round fire threat to Malibu, Topanga, Agoura, Westlake and any home or land within the nearby Santa Monica Mountains area.”

Some fear the campground would be intrusive to the natural setting and wildlife corridor.

“As a California plein air painter, I observe whenever I paint out that the landscape that we revere as a source of creative inspiration is constantly being modified by human demands. Vast meadows studded with aged oak trees disappear, never to return,” said Karen Winters, a member of the Allied Artists of the Santa Monica Mountains and Seashore. “I grew up in the San Fernando Valley when it was a refuge of horse ranches and orange groves. I roamed the hills of Porter Ranch before they were subdivided and paved. Perhaps these early experiences led to my passion to preserve the landscape in artistic form.”

Winters said she hasn’t had the time to delve into the “politics and issues” of the two sides but hopes that any development be undertaken “slowly and with great caution.”

Which is what the RREC’s supporters say they are committed to doing.

“None of these things are a surprise,” said Ron Schafer, Superintendent of the State Parks, Angeles District. “These are all things we plan to address.”

The already-strapped parks department is not paying for the site, but has partnered with Equestrian Trails Inc. in its efforts to raise the estimated $2 million it will take to shepherd the project through planning, environmental review, construction and operation.

Schafer said that those who want to kill the campground based on a mock-up of the proposed design have unfairly jumped the starting gate.

“What’s out there now is a conceptual plan. When we go back and start doing specific planning, there will be more public input and environmental review. I don’t want people to overreact to a conceptual plan, but I guess they do,” Schafer said, adding that he looks forward to continued discussions with the community. To that end, he has been in contact with Fulton and has agreed to attend a public meeting on Oct. 20 at the Malibou Lake Mountain Club.

“All these things-fire hazards, the view, air noise and water pollution-absolutely they concern me and these are all things we need to address,” Schafer said. “But I want to make sure that camping isn’t unfairly vilified. I want camping as a legitimate, safe, recreation use to be treated fairly.”

Lauren Newman, Policy and External Affairs Manager of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said the site of the equestrian ranch was included in the 2005 Malibu Creek State Park General Management Plan, which already underwent public participation and review. However, the proposed campsite will still need to go through several stages of environmental compliance, which will give further opportunity for public involvement from the community and residents, like Fulton, who are still getting up to speed.

Fulton said he is just trying to make people aware, because he suspects that “only horse people are going to the planning meetings.”

“This isn’t just a not-in-my-backyard situation,” Fulton said. “It’s honest people having honest concerns.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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