LA County Board of Supervisors Gives Final Approval to Overnight Camping in Santa Monica Mountains

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl during the public comment portion of the ESHA camping hearing on a Tuesday morning in September 2019.

The LA County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday, Dec. 10 to approve the final version of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s amendment to the Local Coastal Program (LCP) of the Santa Monica Mountains, which will allow overnight “cold camping” (without fires) and parking in some of the mountains’ most environmentally sensitive and fire prone places. The amendment now goes to the California Coastal Commission for approval.

Local resident Barry Haldeman, an attorney by trade, has been the unofficial organizer of Malibu opposition to the LCP amendment. 

“At least we have time to marshal our resources before the item is placed on the agenda of a Coastal Commission meeting,” he said in a recent interview.

“Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA) have always been the Holy Grail of the California Coastal Commission,” Haldeman continued. “And now, all of a sudden, this new amendment allows for overnight camping in ESHA. It still means people invading ESHA even though it’s ‘cold camping.’”

The amendment specifies “cold camping” with no fires and revises the definitions for carry-in and carry-out camping and low-impact campgrounds. The revisions were based on the outcome of the Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund v. California Coastal Commission trial court decision, recorded in September 2017, in which campgrounds located in an ESHA were determined to violate the Coastal Act.

According to arguments made during the supervisors’ first vote on Sept. 24, the California Coastal Commission seems to be betting its new definition of “carry-in, carry-out camping” will not have an impact on ESHA, and therefore will not violate the Coastal Act. The term “carry-in, carry-out” refers to camping where campers “arrive at a campground by foot or other non-motor vehicle transportation from associated parking areas, ADA compliant drop-off areas, trails or bikeways, rely only on equipment and supplies that can be carried to the site, and leaving nothing behind at the campground upon departure,” according to a staff report.

The Sept. 24 vote came after a weeks-long public outcry from Malibu that included a letter-writing campaign urging supervisors to reconsider making the change and nearly two dozen residents, including three city council members, who made the trek to downtown LA in order to give public comments. Those public comments did have some effect, which resulted in the wording being revised to include daily inspections of campground sites, including red flag days.

“We all know that means nothing, since there will be only one walk-through a day, even on high-fire red flag days, to enforce this rule,” Haldeman said. “They only require that someone from ‘campground management’ inspect the areas once a day to see that no one lit a fire. ‘Campground management’ could be an intern, and the amendment doesn’t specify when inspections will occur—they could happen at noon when no one would normally have a campfire rather than after dark. If you let people camp overnight, somebody is going to light a fire no matter what the rules are.  

“Coastal is all about access and we must make it clear that no one is fighting a hike through ESHA,” Haldeman continued, “But we think it’s very dangerous to have any kind of overnight camping, cold or otherwise, with little to no supervision. As a matter of fact, we shouldn’t be talking about camping in the mountains at all given the multiple fires we’ve had since Woolsey.”

Editor’s note: A previous reference to Malibu’s Local Coastal Program has been updated with correct wording.