Staff fears too many people at stoney end of higher ground

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A just-released California Coastal Commission staff report recommends a ban on gatherings of 200 participants at the Streisand Center on Ramirez Canyon Road. The recommendation, if adopted, would outlaw weddings and other large group activities that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has used as a money-making venture since Barbra Streisand gave the 22-acre property to the state government in 1993.

The center, with its three houses, is located deep in Ramirez Canyon. It was intended to be open for events with as many as 400 guests. Ramirez Canyon neighbors have been fighting these uses.

The report, slated for review by the Coastal Commission in January, cites the inadequacy of a dead-end road that would serve as the only evacuation route in the event of a fire. The road is only 12 to 15 feet wide in some stretches, according to the staff. Any attempt to bring the route up to Fire Department standards would harm the creek as an environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA). It described Ramirez Canyon as “a relatively remote location where wildfires are common, served by a substandard road and lacking an alternative evacuation route, and where no sewer system exists….”

The staff also described the septic system as “woefully inadequate.” It suggested that the proximity of the septic tanks and leachfields to Ramirez Canyon Creek makes the facility inappropriate for large gatherings. Citing findings of a consultant, the report said the septic disposal system would be substandard even for routine residential use.

The report urges the commission to approve the use of the facility for 12 day-use events per month with no more than 40 guests at each function. The conservancy would be allowed to collect fees for these events, but it would not be allowed to use the facility at any time for groups of more than 40.

The conservancy’s request was far more ambitious, although it had dropped a proposal for one 400-participant event per year. It now seeks permission for weddings and fund-raisers up to 30 times a year for groups of up to 200 participants. It also seeks approval for an average of six garden tours per month for up to 40 guests, and 24 business retreats and other one-day meetings per year that would include 30 guests per event.

Even for the smaller events, the staff would set stiff conditions:

  • The use of shuttle vans and offsite parking.
  • The vans are to enter and exit by caravan, and to remain onsite during the event to permit an immediate evacuation of the participants in the event of an emergency.
  • Use of “Best Management Practices” — to prevent runoff of grease from parking areas to the riparian corridor of Ramirez Canyon Creek.
  • The conservancy would assume the risk for injuries stemming from the hazards of flood, erosion, and wildfire, and would “indemnify and hold harmless” the commission with respect to its approval of the project.
  • All of the terms would be included in a deed restriction that would run with the land and bind any successor owner.

The report warned use of the road in a fire is all the more dangerous in light of extensive plantings of pines and eucalyptus that would “explode” at high temperatures and could easily make the road impassable. It also noted none of the existing buildings could withstand a raging mountain wildfire, and therefore no refuge exists on the property for groups of 200. It cited the likelihood of panic among the guests as they attempt to flee the site. Commercial functions of 200 guests would also bring others to the site — caterers, portable toilet and other equipment rental services, and florists.

Ruth White of the Ramirez Canyon Homeowners Association told The Malibu Times the findings of the staff report have not prodded settlement efforts. “Everybody is always open to negotiations,” she said, adding nonetheless that the community has no choice but to challenge the state agency. She described Ramirez Canyon as a “dead-end” and a potential inferno, where access is limited to a wooden bridge.

“I’m at all times open to negotiations,” said White. She warned, however, that the terms have to be written in stone. Describing herself as an environmentalist, she explained each issue starts with what is reasonably possible to do. “I bear no malice toward that conservancy,” she said, insisting however that citizen oversight and regulation are required.

The residents have retained Defenders of Property Rights, a Washington, D.C., legal foundation, to press forward their legal claim that an easement all homeowners share in Ramirez Canyon Road limits any use to what is consistent with a residential neighborhood.

Mindy Sheps, a neighbor active in the Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund, confirmed the conservancy’s motion for summary judgment will be argued in court Dec. 3. She noted the conservancy claims that because it is a unique creature under state law, the homeowners cannot seek injunctive relief to halt its commercial activities. Sheps said the only remedy the conservancy says is available is “inverse condemnation” — a remedy that would attempt to measure the loss in dollars. “We don’t want the money,” said Sheps, urging peace and serenity must be restored. She noted, however, the damages would likely be high, and it would be “a foolish thing for the government to spend money on.”

Asked whether the neighbors were blocking the conservancy from defraying the costs of its mission, Sheps remarked that the only legitimate activity relating to its purpose is the use of the property to house some 16 staffers. Denying the suggestion that the property is a white elephant, she suggested the conservancy could sell the land, recoup some $15 million and move elsewhere.