City Council Approves Controversial Park Swap

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Malibu City Council

The Malibu City Council voted unanimously last week to approve the concept of swapping its 532-acre Charmlee Wilderness Park for 83 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s (SMMC) Bluffs Park. As part of the same motion, the council also agreed to settle a years-old lawsuit with SMMC over the uses of Ramirez Canyon Park, and enter a five-year lease agreement with SMMC where each party would lease the other’s park in a kind of trial swap. 

However, under the terms of the swap, no development can occur for five years on either Charmlee or Bluffs Park. Debate over the swap among residents was almost 50-50 for and against. Malibu AYSO and Little League representatives supported the idea, arguing that the chance to build a sports complex at Bluffs Park would ease a desperate logjam of ballfields in Malibu. Just as many residents, however, expressed sincere worry that the SMMC’s plans to build campgrounds at Charmlee could lead to a devastating wildfire in west Malibu. 

City Attorney Christi Hogin said “no development can occur” during the five-year lease by either the city or the SMMC, calling it “a period of exploration and planning.” 

“The leases could be terminated at any time if we uncover problems, infeasibilities, etc.,” Hogin said. “These leases are a house of cards…The back door is wide open…The city is not taking any irreversible steps.” 

City Manager Jim Thorsen said that the cost of constructing additional playing fields at Bluffs Park would be about $4 million. His staff report also stated that the SMMC plans in the future to install eight campsites at Charmlee with “cold camping” (no fires). 

Thirty-four individuals made public comments on the park swap issue, including five children in sports uniforms. The adults were almost evenly split on the issue. In favor of the swap were Malibu AYSO, Malibu Little League, the Malibu Road Homeowner’s Association (HOA) and others. Those opposing the swap included Charmlee Park docents, Charmlee Nature Preserve Foundation, a Chumash Native American, the Lechuza Highlands HOA (near Charmlee) and the Malibu Township Council (MTC). 

Rica Leon, regional commissioner for Malibu AYSO, said ballfields were important both for the kids and the community. 

“Recreational sports bridge the gap in our community, giving children at three elementary schools the chance to meet and play on teams together,” Rica said. “It’s not just about ball fields, it’s about social interaction.” 

Gregg Brock, Little League president, agreed. 

“There’s no other place like [Bluffs Park] where families in Malibu can gather,” Brock said. 

Speakers opposed to the swap urged city council to consider the consequences. “Why call it a swap when [Thorsen] said it would cost $4 million?” one asked. “Why not look just outside the Malibu city limits to buy a lot and keep Charmlee?” 

Former city council member Walt Keller, a member of MTC, said, “The swap will only benefit a few sports users. Either leave Charmlee as it is, or put it to a vote of the people.” 

Others argued that demographics show Malibu will have fewer children in 10 years, lessening the need for ballparks by the time a sports complex would actually be completed. 

Frank Angel, attorney for MTC, questioned whether camping constitutes a “passive use” of Charmlee as required by deed restriction. He also presented slides showing “[SMMC director Joe] Edmiston’s stewardship of parks,” with recent photos of construction in undisturbed areas of King Gillette Ranch in order to accommodate paid commercial filming projects. This included constructing a building for TV’s “The Biggest Loser.” “This is what will happen to Charmlee,” Angel said. 

In the end, city council members were all on the same page. Councilmember Lou La Monte said he favored the swap because “the concept of not being able to control 83 acres right in the middle of our town has always bothered me. It’s a community center where people meet and talk to each other.” 

Councilman John Sibert said the five-year period provided leeway for a decision. “The lease gives us a chance to see whether we can do what we want to do with Bluffs,” Sibert said. “If it doesn’t work, we can pull back and say no.” 

Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal drew a parallel between Malibu’s aging population and a lack of investment in the community. 

“The 55+ population is growing and perhaps it’s because we’re not investing in families and making sure people move in,” Rosenthal said. “Having this jewel in the middle of our city is important. Charmlee will remain the same because of the deed restrictions. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”