Coastal Commission approves overnight camping in three Malibu canyons

Staff Writer

The California Coastal Commission, following staff recommendations, unanimously rejected a Local Coastal Program amendment submitted by the City of Malibu, which included a ban on overnight camping within city limits, and approved an LCP amendment override submitted by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for its Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan Overlay. The decisions were made Wednesday at the end of a nearly 10-hour meeting in Marina Del Rey.

The City of Malibu has not yet decided whether it will continue a lawsuit it filed against the state last year regarding overnight camping, City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich said Thursday in a telephone interview. The suit was invalidated by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who said the city had to wait until the Coastal Commission voted on the issue before legal action could be taken.

The parks enhancement plan will create a total of 29 overnight camping sites at Ramirez, Escondido and Corral canyon parks; allow 32 special events (parties of up to 200 people) per year at the conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property (donated by Barbara Streisand); a 32-space parking lot at the top of Winding Way and improvements to local trails to create the Coastal Slope Trail that will connect the east and west ends of Malibu. Though the proposed plan would prohibit campfires, residents doubt the extent to which that rule would be enforced.

The commission-rejected amendment proposed by the City of Malibu sought to change its Local Coastal Program-the state-drafted document that sets zoning and building standards for Malibu development-to ban overnight camping in parks and recreation areas within city limits. The city’s proposed LCP amendment also requested a requirement for the construction of a new access road into Ramirez Canyon from Kanan-Dume Road prior to the implementation of additional park uses at Ramirez Canyon Park.

Commissioners stated Malibu’s proposed amendment would decrease potential public access and recreation uses within the city, and that, as stated in the staff report, is inconsistent with policies of the Coastal Act.

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Joe Edmiston, executive director of the SMMC, told the commission that Malibu’s plan ensures “no public use of the valuable, dedicated, generously-gifted resource for the people of California.

“And worse yet,” he continued, “no one will ever, unless they pay through the nose, sleep under the stars in a public park in Malibu.”

Malibu City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich, however, pointed out a part of the commission’s staff report that states no alternative overnight camping sites in Malibu exist.

“Right now, today, there’s a total in Malibu of 133 camp sites that are available tonight,” Conley Ulich said to the commission. “There are usually 324 sites but only tonight there are 133 available. You cannot make that finding today that disapproval would adversely affect public welfare in that they will be denied the right to overnight camping in Malibu. We already have the 324 sites.”

One side of the meeting room sat Malibu residents, fire victims and city officials who, in testimonies before the commission, said they support public access criticized the parks enhancement plan for its exclusion of numerous fire safety measures and an environmental impact report.

“Anyone who wants to enjoy and preserve the beauty of the canyon is wholeheartedly welcome,” Corral Canyon resident B.B. Young told the commission. “But we know from painful experience how easy it is for a few sparks to ignite a wildfire in drought-parched brush and how hard it is to control such a fire once it is started.

Young asked the commission to reduce the risk of fire by relocating the campsites to safer locations closer to the ocean. “Otherwise, we have good reason to fear that, sooner or later, a fire originating from one of the proposed campgrounds will trap other campers, or homeowners, or the rescue personnel who put their lives on the line to protect us all.”

Also opposed to the parks enhancement plan was Scott Poster, deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Department.

“Malibu is very unique,” Poster told the Coastal Commission. “It has Santa Ana conditions, explosive fire behavior and it’s dangerous. People get killed here.

“The conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property was originally designed for single family residential use and is not intended for use as a public park,” he continued. “The second alternate code- compliant access road into Ramirez Canyon should be a precondition. Ramirez has no alternative evacuation route.

“Proposed increase in use should can only be considered when it can be demonstrated that the property is in strict compliance with all applicable building and fire codes or public safety will be jeopardized. The Los Angeles County Fire Department will not approve a plan unless mitigation measures are implemented.”

Such mitigation measures, Poster said, include access roads with minimum widths of 20 feet, the prohibition of open flames, and closing parks on red flag days, among others.

Many speakers said Malibu wildfires have been the result of residential development in fire-prone areas from sparks of power lines, power tools or cigarette butts and outdoor grills. No wildfires in Malibu began on legal campgrounds, they repeated.

Though residents expressed fire safety as their primary concern, parks enhancement plan advocates accused them of NIMBYism, with one speaker accusing them of having an “arrogance of self-entitlement.”

Charles Thompson, executive director of Outwards Bounds Los Angeles, a non-profit organization that leads outdoor activities for the underprivileged, spoke of the need for inner city children to bond with nature and said the lack of public access makes it difficult for them to do so.

“This becomes a civil right that’s being denied,” Thompson said. “We need to think about sharing the wealth we have up there.”

Another disabled advocate in a wheelchair called Malibu’s plan a “separate but equal” handicapped proposal.

Despite Malibu residents’ disappointment with the commission’s ruling, Conley Ulich on Thursday in a telephone interview urged them to get fire-ready.

“Don’t get mad, get prepared,” she said.

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