Swap proposed: Malibu Bluffs Park for Charmlee

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

The Malibu City Council on Monday will consider a major land swap with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy that would see the city acquire the remaining 83 acres of Bluffs Park in exchange for 532-acre Charmlee Wilderness Park, and also settle a long-running lawsuit over uses at Ramirez Canyon Park. 

City officials say the swap could potentially give the city much-needed space for extra ballfields and a potential permanent skate park. Meanwhile, the conservancy’s board of directors earlier this week approved the deal, and pressed ahead with plans to build up to eight campsites in Charmlee should the deal go through. 

The land swap is on the agenda of the council’s regular meeting Monday. Under the proposed deal the city, which currently owns 10 acres of Bluffs Park, would receive the remaining 83 acres from the state, while it would transfer its more than 532 acres at Charmlee to the conservancy and its sister agency the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. 

But the land swap is just part of the proposed deal. The deal is contingent on the city settling a long-running lawsuit with the conservancy over the uses in Ramirez Park, also known as the former Streisand Property. 

Should the council approve the swap in concept, the final documents would be brought back to the council at its Jan. 28 meeting for approval. 

Mayor Pro Tem House came up with the idea after “connecting the dots,” she said, to solve several of the city’s longstanding problems, most notably a shortage of playing fields for Malibu’s youth and the lack of a skate park since the closure of Papa Jack’s Skate Park in 2011. 

The city currently owns 10 acres of Bluffs Park, consisting principally of ballfields and the Michael Landon Community Center and adjacent parking lot, which it acquired from SMMC in 2006 in a purchase that gave the conservancy funds to acquire Soka University. 

However, the conservancy retained a deed restriction banning changes to the parking lot without its consent, a restriction it triggered last year when the city considered using part of the parking lot for a temporary skate park. 

In stepped House, who has served previously on the Parks and Recreation Commission and said she was familiar with the city’s lack of active recreation space. 

“I thought, geez, if we were to swap Bluffs, which we’re meeting a stone wall on, for Charmlee, Charmlee wouldn’t change at all. It would just have different management. And it would keep its pristine nature, it would keep the service, and it would keep very passive activities,” House said. “And it would serve us in the fact we could get an active park in the center of Malibu and have control over it.” 

The city has owned the 532- acre Charmlee since 1998. It contains parking, permanent restrooms, a water tank, fire hydrants, a nature center, a caretaker’s residence (mobile home), an outdoor classroom, picnic sites and an extensive trail system. A deed restriction limits its use to passive recreation such as nature walks, hiking and horseback riding. Activities such as team sports are prohibited. 

House talked the idea over with La Monte, and the pair checked with City Manager Jim Thorsen and City Attorney Christi Hogin before scheduling a lunch with conservancy head Joe Edmiston. Edmiston indicated he was interested, La Monte said in a telephone interview Saturday, but wanted to resolve the lawsuit and get a deal done by the end of January. 

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 wends its way through the state bureaucracy. 

Hogin said in an interview Monday with The Malibu Times that the lease would give the city possession of Bluffs Park and allow it to “make plans” until it is able to own it outright, similar to renting an apartment. 

House said if the deal goes through, the community would vote on how to use the acreage at Bluffs Park. Some of it is designated Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) by the Coastal Commission, and may not be built on, while other parts are sloped and not usable for ball fields. 

Settling the court battle 

Relative to the lawsuit, Hogin said the deal would simply make permanent an agreement that has been in place since 2007. According to the staff report on the land swap, the city in the 1990s sued the conservancy after it used the Ramirez Canyon property for “revenue raising events to support the conservancy” such as weddings, business dinners and bar mitzvahs, much to the consternation of nearby homeowners. The conservancy argued that it was a state agency and not subject to local laws, but a Court of Appeal ruled in the city’s favor in 2002. After many subsequent maneuvers, the lawsuit was suspended in 2007 when the conservancy agreed not to rent out the park for private events or parties, among other conditions. 

“What’s being proposed is to resolve a longstanding dispute but without making any real changes,” Hogin said. “Because you know we’ve had this stipulated injunction in place since 2007.” 

Rick Mullen, president of the Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund, said homeowners near the conservancy headquarters were waiting to see what happened with the deal. 

“The level activity that’s gone on since that period has been, I’d say, fine with the neighborhood,” Mullen said. “I would say under those general principles, we’re very interested in how the specific details in a general agreement develop.” 

Overnight camping pushes ahead 

Meanwhile, the conservancy’s board of directors met this past Monday and unanimously voted to apply to the California Coastal Commission for a coastal development permit for overnight camping at Charmlee and Ramirez Canyon Park. The permit would include up to eight new campsites at Charmlee and two wheelchair-accessible campsites at Ramirez Canyon, and the former is dependent on the proposed land swap with the City of Malibu going through. 

Conservancy spokesperson Dash Stolarz said Tuesday in a telephone interview that the acquisition of Charmlee would allow the organization to offer more camping to the public and further facilitate the connection of the Coastal Slope Trail, which could one day connect Leo Carrillo State Park to Topanga State Park. 

Fire Danger? 

Stolarz also addressed concerns that overnight camping would cause increased fire risk. The conservancy intends to mitigate that risk by limiting the camping from Jan. 1 to Sept. 1 of every year to avoid seasonal high fire danger, Stolarz said. After consulting with the LA County Fire Department, the conservancy found that 98 percent of fires occur outside that time frame, she said. 

“Only 8 wildfires over 300 acres have burned in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area since 1900 to the present [during those months],” Stolarz said. 

House also said she was aware that people are concerned about fires, but did not feel it was applicable in this situation. 

“People in Malibu are pretty much aware of fires and the threat of what may happen. And so of course I’m always concerned about fires,” House said, before adding, “I don’t see where you could equate fires to this situation. I think it’s a reach.”