MRCA Seeks Millions from Malibu Homeowners

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The Sycamore Park neighborhood, located above Escondido Beach

A classic battle of public land access versus maintaining private residences is ensuing in Sycamore Park. The residents of Sycamore Park—a private Malibu neighborhood—have sued the Mountain Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA) and are now facing a countersuit from the state-run agency. 

Daily fines of up to $15,000 asked for by the MRCA have been accruing for years for each homeowner named in the suit, which are now estimated to total in the millions. 

In October 2017, the MRCA purchased an undeveloped residential lot in Sycamore Park and began the process of opening it up to the public as an access route to a popular hiking trail, including the publishing of official notices in newspapers including The Malibu Times. In response, homeowners sought to control who entered their private street. 

“We decided that we do something about it,” Longtime Sycamore Park resident and former Malibu mayor Ken Kearsley said in a recent interview. “And we started to garner our troops and try to stop them [the MRCA] from taking our residential property—single family residential.”

“Why we became a city was to protect our zoning,” he added.

Residents said they have been thrown off balance by the financial repercussions in the chance that they would lose the countersuit. Though MRCA’s Executive Director, Joseph Edmiston, declined to comment on this story, spokespeople for the agency have explained the move as a defense of taxpayers’ interest in the now-public land.

The Sycamore Park residents’ lawsuit asks that they maintain the right to keep their road private. The MRCA’s counter lawsuit claims that the residents violated the California Coastal Act of 1976 which was passed to preserve California’s “coastal zone” for public enjoyment. In contrast to the Sycamore Park residents’ lawsuit, which asked for no damages, the MRCA’s lawsuit asked for $5 million in damages and potential fees of $15,000 per day for each violation of the Coastal Act, along with any legal fees incurred.

Kearsley said he felt that Edmiston’s goal with the lawsuit was to intimidate the residents, many of whom are retired and for whom a multimillion dollar judgment could be ruinous. Sycamore Park resident Craig Gold argued that the neighborhood is especially vulnerable as it has no overarching homeowner’s association to defend neighbors. 

Established in 1985, the MRCA’s published mission statement is “to acquire and improve open space and parkland, afford environmental education opportunities, and provide stewardship for a wide variety of public park and open space amenities.” It is a partner organization of the SMMC—the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy—and the two share Edmiston as their executive director. 

Edmiston declined to comment for this story. When asked about the lawsuit, Elena Eger, project manager and lawyer for the MRCA, refused to discuss details about the case.

“We’re in litigation on Sycamore Park so I can’t really talk about matters that are in litigation,” Eger said.

The original complaint filed by the residents of Sycamore Park against the MRCA is set to go before a judge in March of this year. If the residents lose their case, there will be a jury trial for the cross-complaint filed by Edmiston and the MRCA 60 to 90 days after the first trial. The residents are paying for private attorneys; Edmiston and the MRCA are represented by the state’s deputy attorney general, an attorney from MRCA and private council paid for by the MRCA, according to legal documents.

This is not the first time the MRCA, under Edmiston’s guidance, has used bond financing from taxpayers and the state to pay for legal fees, office expenses, conferences, cars, travel, vacation and sick pay and “excessive” overhead charges, according to a Los Angeles Times article dated from October 2006.

Kearsley said the heavy fines are also worrisome to neighbors who are not currently named in the suit, fearing that they will be named in the future.

“It scares the hell out of people—the people who haven’t been named,” Kearsley said.

Sycamore Canyon popularity grows

Kearsley and his wife Barbara have spent much of their life in Malibu. The Kearsleys bought their home in Sycamore Park in 1963. 

“We wanted a private neighborhood for peace and quiet,” Kearsley said.

The issues began in 2015, according to Kearsley, when the MRCA website suggested that hikers could access Escondido Canyon Park and its picturesque waterfalls by taking Via Escondido from which the private residence of Sycamore Meadows Drive branches off.

He argued that, although there were several other ways for hikers to access the falls, including the park’s entrance on Winding Way, social media “hit us like Mack truck,” leading to more people accessing the limited road. This strained the already limited private roads and parking spaces of Winding Way. 

Private roads

“All of the sudden, we found trespassers and we found 90 percent of the people were lost or couldn’t get through,” Kearsley said. “They were inhabiting our roads, they were parking to go to the trail and the fire department said these are substandard roads.” 

The Sycamore Park residents, Kearsley pointed out, pay for the maintenance of their own road. This allows them to remain private.

An attorney for the neighborhood, speaking to The Malibu Times in 2018, said a guard booth was placed at the entrance to the neighborhood following the social media-driven visitor boom. 

“The little tool shed has been there for three years,” Nancy Goldstein, an attorney representing Sycamore Park, said at the time.

Each of the property owners in Sycamore Park owns their part of the road but allows the other members to use it, according to Gold. Gold, whose property is directly adjacent to the land owned by the MRCA, said all the original deeds and maps of the community have the roads designated as being for private use only. This is in contrast to neighboring Winding Way, which has a dedication for public use and is where the parking lot for Escondido Canyon Park is located. 

Since the MRCA now owns a property in the neighborhood—paid for with public funds—spokespeople for the agency have said it is only just that taxpayers get what they paid for.

“The MRCA must take the appropriate step to protect the taxpayers’ interest in the property, as taxpayers’ funds were used to purchase the property,” MRCA attorney Oscar Victoria told Malibu City Council during a meeting in April 2018.

“I feel like I’m dreaming all this, it’s so far out,” Sycamore Park resident Cheryl Calvert said. “You tell people the story and they don’t even believe you.”