MRCA Unveils Plan for 50 Campsites in Malibu Bluffs Park

Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority Executive Director Joe Edmiston (right) describes plans for a campground at Malibu Bluffs Park while being recorded by KBUU News General Manager Hans Laetz.

On Friday, Dec. 13, the California Coastal Commission concluded its three-day meeting at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas with visits to Malibu Bluffs Park and the Topanga Ranch Motel at Topanga State Park to hear about proposed projects for both sites. The commission invited members of the public to meet them at the designated stops after the public hearings.

Camping in Malibu Bluffs Park

After months of speculation from Malibu stakeholders about plans to institute camping in Malibu Bluffs Park, Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) on Friday presented a potential map showing 50 campsites on the westernmost end of the park property. 

The announcement came months after Malibu City Council voted to reverse a park swap, ceding Charmlee Wilderness Park to the SMMC, in exchange for the undeveloped portion of Malibu Bluffs Park. With the swap reversed, SMMC has resumed stewardship over the centrally located bluffside acreage. 

Edmiston thanked council members for reversing the swap, saying the agency had not previously planned on camping at Malibu Bluffs Park.

“Thank you to the City of Malibu,” Edmiston said. “This was not in our contemplation prior to the city saying, ‘Here’s the lease back.’”

The campgrounds will be open to the public, but will be prioritized for access by foster children in LA County, either with their parents or in groups.

“What we’re gonna be proposing is a facility, not exclusively, but aimed at the most oppressed community in Southern California and in California at-large,” Edmiston said. “And that is the folks who are in foster care. Foster kids have it the worst.”

Edmiston said the SMMC will be working with the Department of Children and Family Services as well as other nonprofits that work with foster children. 

Edmiston was asked whether the conservancy was still pursuing adding general public campgrounds at Puerco Canyon, which had previously been proposed as a campground location for “underserved and disadvantaged communities,” per the SMMC’s 2016-17 annual report.

“We’re not abandoning that idea. We definitely want to try to pursue it,” Edmiston said.

Edmiston said the expense of adding general public campgrounds at Puerco Canyon was cost prohibitive because it would require going through a mile of land in the City of Malibu’s jurisdiction, and suggested the MRCA was being treated harshly by the city. The restrictions imposed by the City of Malibu regarding the road leading up to Puerco Canyon would cost approximately $11.5 million, Edmiston said. 

Malibu City Planning Director Bonnie Blue responded to Edmiston’s statement, and said the requirements regarding the road were not specific to the SMMC, but were requirements of the LA County Fire Department, and therefore not the City of Malibu. 

“It’s just basics of access, and the city’s happy to cooperate in whatever way we can to move projects forward that are safe and help everyone,” Blue said.

The proposed Malibu Bluffs Park campsites will feature a mix of empty spaces for tents and sleeping bags as well as tent-like structures that will be available for rent. There are plans for food trucks to be present near the campgrounds, according to SMMC Project Analyst Mario Sandoval. 

According to reporting by KBUU News, Sandoval said open flames would not be allowed on the campgrounds, and that there would be a 24-hour ranger-in-residence to manage security, maintenance or operational needs on site. The MRCA would also impose a camping off-season at the site between Sept. 15 and Jan. 15, during which is the highest activity for red flag days and fire severity in the state, Sandoval said. 

This is not the first time that campsites were proposed at Malibu Bluffs Park. The SMMC first pitched its Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan Overlay in 2006, which would have allowed for overnight camping at several Malibu canyon parks owned by the conservancy at the time. 

In 2009, the California Coastal Commission approved SMMC’s plan, adding to it camping at Malibu Bluffs Park. Simultaneously, the coastal commission also denied a competing LCP amendment proposed by the City of Malibu. The city then sued, alleging that the coastal commission had overstepped its bounds.

In 2014, the City of Malibu and the SMMC agreed on a five-year swap lease in which the city took ownership of Charmlee Wilderness Park and the SMMC took control of the 83 undeveloped acres of Malibu Bluffs Park. That lease expired on May 28 this year. The City of Malibu decided not to renew the lease, regaining control of Charmlee amid concerns of potential campgrounds starting another Woolsey-like fire.

Hans Laetz contributed to this report.

Topanga Ranch Motel

At the Topanga Ranch Motel, commissioners met with staff members from California State Parks and the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) to discuss the environmental and historic restoration of Topanga State Park, as well as upgrades to make the area functional for public use.

California State Parks Cultural Resource Program Manager Barbara Tejada gave a brief history of the Topanga Ranch Motel. From 1924 to 1933, Tejada said, the predecessor of the motel was Cooper’s Camp, Tent City, which was an accumulation of tent cabins on the property owned by the Los Angeles Athletic Club. 

In 1933, the Topanga Beach Auto Court was constructed in its place. The area has been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, Tejada said, as one of the rare examples of a still-existing 1930s-era auto court motel.

“So it was built, really, during the Depression years,” Tejada said. “And it was built for cheapness—because they just put together various parts and pieces. But it was an affordable place for middle-class folks to come out to the beach and recreate during the Depression era.”

California State Parks Angeles District Superintendent Craig Sap said the first step in pursuing this restoration project is to greenlight the Business Development Plan, which California State Parks staff members are working on through their headquarters and a consultant. 

“We’re starting our Business Development Plan, so that is the precursor to see what we can do with these structures in the future for lower cost accommodations,” Sap said.

Tejada said California State Parks has done basic historic and condition assessments of the buildings to see what it would take to fix the cabins on site. In order to compile a more detailed historic preservation assessment of the structures, however, they will be working with a student group from the University of Southern California (USC) in the spring to gather more data.

The current structures do not meet code, Sap said. There are electrical and plumbing issues which also need to be worked out during restoration.

RCDSMM Senior Conservation Biologist Rosi Dagit, who has been working on this project for over 20 years, touched on environmental aspects of the restoration plans.

“One of the opportunities that we have is to figure out how to integrate sea level rise accommodation, lagoon and habitat restoration, fish passage restoration and really do that in such a way that we make this all accessible to visitors, and increase the ability for people and the public, in general, to really enjoy this place in a lot of ways,” Dagit said. “Whether it be just coming down here for a day at the beach, or using these accommodations that we hope to include.”

It is possible to put in a self-sustaining, functional lagoon, Dagit said, with recreational facilities, a parking lot and access to the beach without affecting the surf bank. But it all needs to be done in a thoughtful manner. 

One of the challenges of restoration, Dagit said, would be the lack of a nearby sewer line. 

“We really want the Ranch Motel to do its thing and provide its benefits to people,” Dagit said. “But it’s not gonna be quick. This is not gonna happen next year.”

Commissioner Caryl Hart asked Dagit whether the project could be sped up if money were not an issue. 

Dagit said planning and permitting would still take some time. The project kicked off in November, and a public stakeholder meeting is scheduled for February 22. According to Dagit, the planning process will be completed by December 2021, and next steps and funding requirements will not be clear until the summer or fall of that year.