Conservancy official denies connection between grant money and city approval of parks project

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Winding Way residents oppose scaled-down version of parking lot proposed at the top of the road.

The head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy at a workshop on Saturday brushed away talk that a possible SMMC grant to the city for its Legacy Park Project is dependant on City Council approval of the conservancy’s parks enhancement plan.

Two years ago the conservancy board approved a staff recommendation for a $2.5 million grant to Malibu for the purchase of the Chili Cook-Off site. The city ended up not accepting the money for various reasons. SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston said on Saturday that following the city’s rejection, he promised state officials that the funds would not go elsewhere, and be designated for use in Malibu at another time. Edmiston said that he is currently recommending the money go toward the city’s Legacy Park Project, a municipal plan to enhance the Chili Cook-Off site.

“I don’t vote on the [conservancy] board, I make a recommendation,” Edmiston told an audience of approximately 40 people on Saturday at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School in response to a question about whether the grant would go to the city if the council were to vote against the parks plan. “We’ve [the conservancy staff] already made a recommendation [in 2005]. That recommendation stands. The Chili Cook-Off area and what happens with Legacy Park is important. It really doesn’t have anything to do with camping in Malibu.”

Although Edmiston says the conservancy staff is keeping with its 2005 recommendation, the board has not voted on whether it would approve the grant a second time.

Edmiston was twice asked on Saturday about whether a connection exists between the Legacy Park Project grant and the City Council’s vote this Tuesday on the Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan, which among other elements, proposes 26 overnight camping sites. One resident was concerned the council could have a bias when it votes.

City Attorney Christi Hogin, Edmiston and other SMCC staff members and consultants spent nearly two hours explaining the plan and answering questions. Most who attended the workshop were also at last month’s Planning Commission hearing, when the commission recommended the project’s approval despite 68 of the 70 public speakers opposing the project.

Hogin reiterated on Saturday an opinion she stated in her editorial that appeared in this week’s issue of The Malibu Times that if the council rejects the project on Tuesday, the city loses its chance to have a say because, she said, the SMMC has “some other avenues” it can use to get the plan through that do not involve the city.

“[If the council rejects the project], the city foregoes any opportunity that it has to impose any of these conditions,” Hogin said. “This process is [the method] the city can use to influence how these parks can happen.”

When asked what his next step would be if the council votes down the plan, Edmiston said he did not know.

Overnight camping is proposed for Ramirez Canyon Park (two sites for the disabled), Corral Canyon Park (11 for the disabled, five regular) and the city-owned Charmlee Wilderness Park (one for the disabled, seven regular). The camping in Corral Canyon has received limited opposition. But residents living near the other two sites have voiced tremendous concern, with their main argument being about the risk of fire. Several people raised this issue again on Saturday. Edmiston defended the proposal by saying the conservancy is more than adequately prepared for fire problems with its personnel and equipment.

“It is not as though we are unfamiliar with the fact that there is fire,” Edmiston said.” In the very beginning, we have taken fires into account. It’s a serious issue. We spend a lot of our money and a lot of our resources making sure that our areas are as safe as possible.”

Another element of the plan is the creation of a parking lot at the top of Winding Way that would include two disabled spots and two spaces for equine trailers. This is a scaled-down version of the proposal presented to the Planning Commission, which called for 18 regular spaces. Although Edmiston told The Malibu Times this week that the revision was an example of the conservancy’s “good faith attempt at dealing with some of the issues that have been raised,” Winding Way residents on Saturday said they were still opposed to the parking lot, and questioned its purpose. Edmiston acknowledged that this would probably lead to litigation.

“It’s going to be a battle of the lawyers,” he said. “I respect your [Winding Way residents’] right to defend what you believe is the rights that you have. And unfortunately, we’re probably going to have to meet in court about that.”

The City Council hearing begins at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall, located at 23815 Stuart Ranch Road. The session will be televised on City TV, Channel 3 and webcast on the city’s Web site at www.ci.malibu.ca.us. Look for coverage of the council meeting on The Malibu Times’ Web site following the vote late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.

The plan and the staff report to the City Council can be found on the city’s Web site. Click “City Council/Commissions” on the left side. Then click “City Council Agendas,” followed by “2007 Agendas” and lastly “November 13, 2007-Regular Meeting.” The plan is agenda item B4.