Council votes to pursue Bluffs Park swap

Second- and third-graders from Juan Cabrillo and Point Dume Marine Science Elementary Schools compete at Bluffs Park. Devon Meyers / TMT

Citing the hope of bringing more athletic fields to Malibu, the City Council on Monday voted 5-0 to enter into negotiations on a deal that could give the city complete control of Bluffs Park by trading away its jurisdiction over Charmlee Wilderness Park. 

The decision came much to the chagrin of more than 60 opponents who list serious fire danger and lack of trust in the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy as prime reasons for wanting to keep Charmlee under city control. Supporters of the swap argued that the new land would aid a glaring lack of access to recreational sports fields for Malibu children. 

“I think the only opportunity we have to get more fields in Malibu right now is by doing it this way,” said Mayor Lou La Monte before the unanimous vote. 

Should the deal go through, the SMMC and its sister agency the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority would hand over its 83 acres at Bluffs in exchange for Malibu’s 532-acre Charmlee. The city currently owns 10 acres of Bluffs Park, consisting principally of ballfields, the Michael Landon Community Center and an adjacent parking lot. 

In front of approximately 100 attendees, the council directed City Attorney Christi Hogin to begin negotiating the multilayered agreement, which also requires the city to settle a years-long lawsuit over uses in Ramirez Park. 

In its direction, the council stipulated that it would be impossible to reach a deal with the SMMC by Jan. 28, as requested by SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston. Council members want more time to digest the details of the possible swap and asked for more assurance from the SMMC that safety and fire regulations would be strictly enforced at new campsites. 

Council members also asked Hogin to explore the possibility of banning campsites at Corral and Escondido canyons during her dealings with SMMC attorneys. 

Additionally, the council wants confirmation from city staff that building more ballfields at Bluffs Park is a feasible idea should Malibu gain control of the park. Of the 83 acres the city would gain, approximately 73 are zoned environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA), and off-limits to build on by the California Coastal Commission. 

City Manager Jim Thorsen and Planning Director Joyce Parker- Bozylinski said that a 10-acre section in the northwest corner of Bluffs is not ESHA and would be suitable for soccer fields, a 20,000-square-foot skate park and a parking lot. Still, the council asked for further information in upcoming meetings. 

Lack of notice criticized 

Skeptics of the deal charged Mayor Lou La Monte and Mayor Pro Tem Joan House with trying to hastily get the proposed negotiation on Monday’s agenda before the public could get a feel for what the swap entails on Malibu’s end. House and La Monte pitched the idea to Edmiston on a lunch date in December. There was also a follow-up meeting between SMMC reps, Thorsen and Hogin. 

“There’s no backroom deals and I’m a little bit sorry that people keep mentioning that and look for something that doesn’t exist,” House said. 

House said she saw a possible swap as a way to help local kids have more youth sports available to them, a sentiment echoed by many parents and coaches in attendance. 

“The bottom line here is we don’t have enough field space,” said AYSO representative Mark Konopaske. “There’s a tremendous capacity for use of these spaces [at Bluffs] for the kids and community.” 

Russ Purtell, a local softball and soccer coach, said battling over time on limited fields has become too common for sports organizations in Malibu. 

“Coaches, they fight tooth and nail to find available time slots,” Purtell said. 

However, many in the room listed fire safety at Charmlee as an overarching concern. The SMMC has already voted to pursue plans to build eight campsites at Charmlee, which spells a high chance of brush fires, according to opponents. 

“It only takes one match or a cigarette…and you have a holocaust,” Lucille Keller told the council. 

Conservancy under fire 

Others opposed to the swap simply don’t trust Edmiston. 

Reading from an email sent by Edmiston to the SMMC’s board of directors in which Edmiston appears to detail how the deal will be spun to the public, Corral Canyon resident Paul Morra identified what he and others see as a presumptive political maneuvering of a potential swap. 

“This is an important political victory that the council members can claim (conversely a reason they will vote for it). It represents for me personally a bitter defeat in that a local municipality can defeat classic park uses on land acquired from all the state’s taxpayers,” Edmiston wrote. “On the other hand, Malibu’s victory is only in a technical sense because camping will be proposed just a few yards outside the city limits, and beyond their ability to veto.” 

Councilman John Sibert acknowledged Edmiston’s tendency to “get what he wants” but also entrusted him to maintain Charmlee’s character should the city hand over the reins. 

“The conservancy has done an awful good job of putting a lot of the mountains aside for recreational use,” he said. 

Many were also angered by the SMMC’s board vote last week to approve applying for a coastal development permit for new campsites and parking at Charmlee even before the City of Malibu agreed to negotiate. 

“I hope that the deal’s not already done and that this is not a dog and pony show,” resident Bruce Dunn said. 

Hogin said the SMMC might have jumped the gun with that vote. 

“The conservancy has no right to get a CDP on property it does not own,” Hogin said. “That was, I guess, an anticipatory authorization.” 

Walt Keller, a former councilman who sat on the council when the city gained control of Charmlee in 1998, reprimanded the current council for wanting to give up one of Malibu’s earliest acquisitions. 

“It is a giveaway no matter how you slice it. That park is a birthright of our city,” Keller said. 

While the conservancy operates Bluffs Park, it is owned by the state, meaning the exchange of the properties could take a number of years. To expedite a deal, Edmiston suggested the city and conservancy enter into respective one dollar per year leases on the property to immediately swap ownership while the transaction makes its way through the state bureaucracy. 

Jefferson Wagner, another former councilmember, pointed out that Malibu is guaranteed two acres from the Crummer development site next to Bluffs Park where the construction of five luxury homes is proposed. He argued the council was rushing into things, and that Malibu would get those two Crummer acres much faster than the years it would take to hash out deed and lease exchanges between the city and SMMC. 

“That two acres is a ballpark and a parking lot,” he said. 

The council briefly entertained the idea of a community task force before agreeing to the exchange, as suggested by Wagner, but made no concrete plans for one.