Coastal Commission head calls city proposal to ban camping illegal

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Peter Douglas, the California Coastal Commission’s executive director, says the city should not even bother to propose a camping prohibition to the state agency. Malibu Mayor Jeff Jennings says there is not much likelihood of the city saying, “Oh, well, never mind.”

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

In a sharp reversal of last month’s straw vote, the City Council last 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. Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, said such a prohibition goes against the law.

The city’s LCP, the state-drafted set of two documents that sets zoning and building standards for Malibu development, allows 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 about the perceived fire risk, the council decided against the camping sites.

“The best thing for Malibu is not to allow overnight camping,” said Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Conley Ulich at the meeting attended by nearly 100 residents as well as television and radio media from throughout the county. Conley Ulich, the lone council member not to support camping when the council first heard the issue last month, added, “I want to commend [the rest of the council] for rethinking this.”

An LCP amendment requires Coastal Commission approval for passage. And although he can only advise the 12-person voting body, Douglas’ opinion of the council vote will make the city’s pursuit a tough challenge.

“I would suggest they could save everyone’s time, energy and money by dropping that idea,” Douglas said in an interview late last week. “The Coastal Act (the document that guides the Coastal Commission and is the basis for all local LCPs) is clearly in support of public access and visitor-serving accommodations. I don’t know what they’re thinking. It runs so contrary to the Coastal Act, and it would be a waste of public funds to pursue something that is so blatantly inconsistent with the law.”

Mayor Jeff Jennings said on Tuesday he is not surprised to hear Douglas’ comments, but added, “I don’t see that there is much likelihood of the city saying, ‘Oh, well, never mind.'”

Jennings further stated, “My reading of the Coastal Act is that it calls for a balancing of those interests [public access and visitor-serving accommodations] with the lives and property interests of the residents.”

City Councilmember Andy Stern said he was disappointed Douglas reached a conclusion without analyzing the city’s application,

“We’re not against public access,” Stern said. “We’re saying it should be safe public access. I appreciate Mr. Douglas’ concern about a waste of public funds. But the people of Malibu and the City Council supporting health and safety is not a waste of public funds.”

City Attorney Christi Hogin noted the LCP amendment does include features other than the camping element, many of which the Conservancy and the council are in agreement. This includes the linkage of various trails to create one continuous path called the Coastal Slope Trail.

2006 plan revisited

Conservancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston said the state agency would return to its original plan that inspired three lawsuits, two coming from the city. Called a Public Works Plan, it only required Coastal Commission approval, but was tossed aside in January of this year when the city and Conservancy staffs decided to reach a compromised proposal that would go before the City Council and later the Coastal Commission. Edmiston said this week that the rejuvenated plan would come again in the form of a Public Works Plan or some other form.

“The best legal minds that we can afford are mulling over that issue,” Edmiston said. “At this point, I can’t tell you how we’re going to proceed.”

He said a decision would be made before the end of the year. The details of the Conservancy’s plan include a variety of controversial proposals that are in opposition to some homeowners associations and the city, and in many cases, both. The features include 29 camping sites: five at Ramirez Canyon (two for disabled visitors, three for regular), 17 at Corral Canyon (three for disabled visitors and 14 regular) and five at Escondido Canyon (two for disabled visitors and five regular). It also calls for 32 major events (of up to 200 people) per year at the Conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property. And a parking lot is proposed at the top of Winding Way. Ramirez Canyon property owners, represented by the Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund, are opposed to overnight camping at that park other than for the disabled. The property owners also do not support 32 major events per year, only supporting as many as eight if the Conservancy builds an access road from Kanan Dume Road. Escondido Canyon homeowners are opposed to overnight camping entirely in that area, and have threatened to sue if the parking lot is built, saying the lot would lead to more traffic on an already dangerous road and, furthermore, they say the area is located in an environmentally sensitive habitat area.

“There’s already a parking lot in the area,” said local homeowners association Vice President Dan Cislo. “We’ll just have to fight him [Edmiston] each step of the way. All we have on our side is logic and reason. Joe has his own agenda.”

Camping at Charmlee Park, which was part of the proposal that went before the City Council, will not be revisited. That element had been inserted instead of camping at Escondido Canyon.

When the Conservancy proposed the plan last year, Edmiston said an environmental impact review was not needed. This inspired one of the city’s lawsuits. City Attorney Christi Hogin said this week if Edmiston does not do an EIR this time, the city would file another lawsuit.

Edmiston said this week he regrets ever having reached the deal with the city staff earlier this year. “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.”

$2.5 million for Legacy Park still in the cards?

Edmiston said at a recent workshop that he supported the Conservancy giving the city $2.5 million for its Legacy Park Project. It had been theorized by some that the City Council’s initial support of the Conservancy’s camping proposal was due to this promise, something denied by city and Conservancy officials. Edmiston said after last week’s meeting he still supported granting the city that money, although he could not be certain his board would approve it.

“I believe the Legacy Park Project is a good project, and I’m still in favor of it,” Edmiston said. “I might be laughed out of the room, but I will support it.”