Malibu residents threaten lawsuits over camping plan


The threats and concerns over fire risks from an overnight camping plan proposed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for Malibu parks came during a meeting to collect public comment on the plan’s draft environmental impact report.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

More than 100 outraged residents attended a public meeting Tuesday at Webster Elementary School to voice their ongoing opposition of a plan to allow overnight camping at certain parks within city limits. Many threatened to file lawsuits to stop the plan.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and its sister organization, Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority, held the meeting to receive public comment on a draft environmental impact report for its proposed Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan, which includes the creation of 71 overnight camping sites at five Malibu parks. The organizations will be accepting public comment until March 22, at which time the California Coastal Commission will review the plan.

The plan, long opposed by numerous Malibu residents who say it increases the risk of fires, will create overnight camping sites at Bluffs Park and Latigo, Ramirez, Escondido and Corral canyon parks; a total of 183 parking spaces within those five parks; and improvements to local trails to create the Coastal Slope Trail that will connect the east and west ends of Malibu. All five parks targeted for overnight camping have, in recent years, been burned or threatened by a wildfire. Though the proposed plan would prohibit campfires, residents doubt the extent to which that rule would be enforced.

In addition, the plan would allow 32 special events (for parties of up to 200 people) per year at the conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property. Public events and tours with a maximum of 40 people would be allowed year-round, seven days a week. A minimum of 10 public events per month could be conducted at Ramirez, Escondido or Corral canyon parks, and a minimum of 12 tours would be permitted per month.

Many residents at Monday night’s meeting, including some who live on Malibu Road located beneath Bluffs Park, threatened to file multiple lawsuits against the SMMC and MRCA, adding to an active suit filed against them by the City of Malibu after the plan was approved by the Coastal Commission last year.

Despite having been accused of NIMBYism by parks enhancement plan advocates, numerous Malibu residents, including city officials and city council candidates, stressed the issue of public safety as their main concern. Many who reside in the fire-prone canyons told SMMC and MRCA officials that the draft EIR does not address various safety issues.

The residents said the EIR lacks guaranteed supervision of the campsites by park rangers, who would enforce the prohibition of campfires.

Though the EIR states that camping would not be allowed during red flag conditions, such as high winds that caused the 2007 Corral Canyon Fire, “It also said supervision of the camp sites would be limited to when the camp sites are reserved,” Corral Canyon resident Ryan Weiss said. “If somebody’s camping there illegally, they’re not going to be supervised. And if there are red flag conditions, nobody’s going to be supervising because nobody’s supposed to be camping.”

Malibu City Council candidate Steve Scheinkman was skeptical of how adequate enforcement could be afforded, given the limited funding of state agencies in this economic recession.

While all residents who testified at the meeting emphasized the importance of campsite supervision, some warned that fire risk would still exist from cigarette smokers.

“We’ve talked about cold camping with no fires … but the bigger problem is cigarette smoking,” Councilmember John Sibert said at the meeting. “We haven’t found a way to stop that yet. Simply having somebody around helps, but it’s not going to solve the problem.”

Sibert recalled a fire in 2007 that started in the Bluffs Park area after a cigarette was allegedly flicked onto Pacific Coast Highway, which, in minutes, burned down multiple houses on Malibu Road (the cause of the fire was never determined by officials).

“You’re dealing with a number of hiking spots where people will smoke cigarettes. This has got to be one of your primary considerations,” Sibert said.

Residents also said the EIR did not address the issue of evacuation from canyons during a wildfire.

“We have one way in and one way out, and by a fire erupting where you proposed camping [in the canyons] you are essentially blocking our only way out,” Paul Mora, who lost his home to the 2007 Corral Canyon Fire, said at the meeting. “People will die and you will have this on your hands. I don’t think you want that on your hands.”

City Planning Commissioner and city council candidate John Mazza found fault with the plan’s proposal to construct new water lines for the campsites, which would connect to 10,000-gallon water tanks.

“The 10,000-gallon tank you’re proposing is like dumping a Pixie cup of water on a forest fire,” Mazza said at the meeting.

Mazza suggested relocating all proposed overnight camping sites to beaches such as Leo Carrillo State Beach or Westward Beach.

Lastly, residents urged SMMC and MRCA officials to take their concerns seriously, and to incorporate solutions to them in the EIR to avoid lawsuits.

“I urge you not to dictate to us, but to reach out to residents of Malibu because we all live in the Santa Monica Mountains and we deserve that respect,” Malibu City Council candidate Lou La Monte said at the meeting.