Road issue major hurdle in Conservancy plan resolution

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Fire risks are also cited by opponents to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy parks plan.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

As happened with last month’s blaze, Saturday’s Corral Fire has given increased energy to those challenging the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s parks enhancement plan because of the perceived fire danger by overnight camping. But that issue, with which the City Council and the conservancy are mostly in agreement, will not likely be the deciding factor in whether the plan in its current form receives approval from the City Council. The demand for an access road connecting Kanan Dume Road and the conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property and the issues surrounding that continue

to be the major conflict in the approval process.

At last month’s council meeting, city leaders did not take a vote on the plan, which includes the creation of 26 overnight camping sites in Malibu, the connection of several Malibu trails to create a continuous path and the increase of events at the conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property. Although the council, in a 4-1 straw vote, supported the camping sites, it did not make a final decision because of SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston’s anger at another council straw vote that the conservancy would have to build the access road if it wanted increased events at Ramirez Canyon. The construction of the road would require the SMMC to purchase a piece of property, and Edmiston said with the council’s demand, property owner Harold Lauber could raise the price as high as he wanted with the knowledge of the site’s new value. Also, Edmiston said it was unfair that the conservancy would have to buy the land and build the road at an estimated cost of $8.5 million without receiving much in return. (The council said it would only allow the conservancy to hold 16 major events per year-functions with up to 200 people-if the road were built. The conservancy had already been applying to hold that many events before the issue of the road came up at the meeting.)

The issue of the property purchase is even more complex because California Coastal Commission staff has preliminarily called the property an environmentally sensitive habitat area, or ESHA. State law prohibits development within 100 feet of an ESHA. Edmiston said Coastal Commission staff has said it might recommend to the Coastal Commission voting body that the road could be built only if, after purchasing the property, the conservancy does not resell three graded parcels on the site. But Edmiston said this is a problem, because the conservancy is counting on selling those parcels to make up for the cost of buying the property.

The SMMC board voted 4-1 on Monday to pursue the purchase of the site, but only if the Coastal Commission staff changes its preliminary statements, and decides to allow the conservancy to sell the three parcels. Edmiston said he is meeting with the Coastal Commission staff in Ventura this Thursday. Coastal Commission staff officials did not return a call from The Malibu Times on Tuesday.

Number of events allowed a significant issue

Meanwhile, there is a significant difference of opinion on how many major events the conservancy should be allowed to have on its Ramirez Canyon property if it were to build the road. Ramirez Canyon property owners, who have had several legal battles with the conservancy over this issue since the conservancy acquired the property from singer/actress Barbra Streisand in 1993, say the SMMC should be allowed eight major events (although Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund President Rick Mullen said the property owners would be open to increasing that number if the conservancy agreed to hold its major events without amplified sound). The council has said it should be 16 (although Edmiston fears the city officials will reduce that number to the Ramirez Canyon property owners’ proposal). And the conservancy says it should be able to have at least 16 regardless of whether the road is built, although Edmiston said that total should be even higher.

Currently, under a lawsuit agreement with the city, the conservancy is not allowed any major events. The Ramirez Canyon property owners have proposed that if the conservancy were not to build the road, it would be allowed only four major events.

“If we go through all the problems of putting that road in and we only get four [extra] events, that’s the kind of thing that infuriates me, infuriates my board,” Edmiston said in an interview on Tuesday. “We ought to get something more. Right now, nobody is putting anything more on the table.”

With the parks enhancement proposal, which is an amendment to the city’s Local Coastal Program, giving the Coastal Commission the final say, Edmiston said it is possible for the conservancy to get the right for increased events from the Coastal Commission if the council does not satisfy him.

“All our options are open if we are treated unfairly by the city of Malibu,” Edmiston said.

The council will take up the issue at a special meeting on Dec. 5 at 10 a.m. The hearing is a continuation of last month’s session. Mayor Jeff Jennings admitted that there is a significant difference of opinion on the Ramirez Canyon issue.

“The obvious potential solution is the building of the new road,” Jennings said on Tuesday. “I’ll feel a lot better if Coastal [Commission staff] backs off their position and allows them [the conservancy] to sell the lots.”

Jennings said although he can’t speak for his colleagues, he is not necessarily in agreement with the Ramirez Canyon property owners on how many major events the conservancy should be allowed to have.

Since the Dec. 5 hearing is the continuation of last month’s session, no public testimony will be taken. Frank Angel, the attorney for the La Chusa Highlands Property Owners Association, wrote a letter to the city on Tuesday requesting the public hearing to be reopened because of the Corral Fire, and the issues he believes it raises. Jennings said he does not support the request.

“We heard an abundance of testimony last time,” Jennings said. “I have a pretty good feeling what the arguments are. I don’t know whether there’s a legal reason why we may have to reopen the hearing, but my initial answer is, no.”

Fire risk too high opponents say

With overnight camping proposed for Ramirez Canyon (two sites for the disabled), Corral Canyon Park (11 sites for the disabled, five regular) and the city-owned Charmlee Wilderness Park (seven regular, one for disabled), numerous people say there is a risk of fire, despite only propane stoves being allowed at the sites (Councilmember Sharon Barovsky wanted more information last month about the possibly of no cooking at all). Several speakers came to Monday’s conservancy meeting to express this view in the wake of the Corral Fire.

“We are a 24/7, 365-day Red Flag area,” said Malibu Park resident Susan Tellem. “It is never the same in Malibu as it is anywhere else in Southern California. I can tell you the residents are not going to sit back and let this happen easily. We will do everything in our power to make you understand how serious this is for us.”

Conservancy staff members said creating overnight camping sites would actually lesson the chance of wildfires because the areas would be legally populated and staffed.

“Neighbors and neighborhoods are far, far safer having people in the backcountry with cell phones to report any suspicious activity than are areas that are closed,” said Deputy Executive Officer Walt Young. “Closed areas do invite unwelcome activity.”