The California Coastal Commission voted 11-0 Wednesday in Oceanside to approve the proposal from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) and its sister organization the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) to enhance Malibu parks with various features, including overnight camping. The commission heard from representatives of several recreation organizations for underprivileged and racial minority youths and other project proponents, but only one Malibu resident appeared to speak in opposition. This was radically different from previous hearings before various government bodies on this proposal, in which dozens of Malibu residents spoke in opposition, with fire risk being the biggest criticism.
The project calls for 54 total camping sites at Bluffs Park (35) and the parks at Corral Canyon (17) and Ramirez Canyon (2). The Ramirez Canyon sites will only be built following the construction of an emergency access road. The project also includes trails, sites for day-use and parking spaces at those parks as well as Escondido Canyon and the Latigo Trailhead. Also, Ramirez Canyon can host gatherings of up to 200 people up to 16 times per year.
“This plan is extremely important to approve,” said Commissioner Sara Wan, a Malibu resident who is a frequent critic of Malibu regarding public access. “It’s going to bring low-cost, visitor-serving accommodations to a community that has almost none.”
Rick Mullen of Ramirez Canyon, the lone resident who addressed the commission, said others did not show because they believed the commission would “rubber stamp” the project. He said the evidence was that the commission unanimously approved the project in concept last year with limited discussion following a lengthy public testimony.
Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said that was not a fair point because the previous hearing was on whether the project could go forward, while this time the details of the project were before the commission. He called the assumption of approval to be “rather offensive and arrogant.”
Douglas told the commissioners, “Aside from the fact we’re going to get out of here several hours sooner than we otherwise would have thought, I think it’s unfortunate that people just presumed what you were going to do and missed the opportunity that they had to give you their thoughts on the merits of the project that is before you.”
Another comment by Mullen angered several commissioners. While staring and pointing at SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston, but addressing the commission, Mullen said, “We won’t oppose it here because we know you’ll rubber stamp it, but we’ll oppose it like we always have. And we will be there. And we will be there to the end.”
Commissioner Steve Blank compared Mullen’s comment to Gov. George Wallace standing in front of a doorway at the University of Alabama in 1963 to prevent the first black students from entering. He said he would put Mullen’s speech on the Internet.
“I think that that would make somebody in Malibu pause of what was just said here,” Blank said. “‘You’re not coming into our schoolhouse.’ Excuse me, we will. And all 35 million Californians are coming.”
Mullen said on Friday that the response from Blank and similar statements from other commissioners did not accurately reflect what he had said.
“Their reaction was more based on the fact that they’re not used to people speaking at the podium who are not prostrating themselves before them and asking them for something,” Mullen said.
Mullen added that Ramirez residents are not opposed to the overnight camping sites slated for the local park. But they are opposed to the feature that allows for 16 catered events. He said the conservancy wants to host these events, which he said are not suitable for a residential neighborhood, so it can make money to afford the maintenance costs of the property. The site, which is the location of the SMMC main office, was acquired through a donation from Barbra Streisand in 1993.
“This whole project is basically camouflage for what [Edmiston] really wants to do, which is he wants to turn Barbra Streisand’s old estate into a wedding and catering business and do for-profit commercial enterprises there as many days as possible,” said Mullen, who added the he did not believe the overnight camping sites would ever be built.
Mullen said “everything is on the table” when asked whether a lawsuit would be filed to challenge the decision. There are already suits pending from the Ramirez homeowners and the City of Malibu in response to last year’s approval of the plan in concept.
To address fire safety concerns, the plan only allowed small electric appliances for cooking. No flames of any kind were acceptable. Wan proposed allowing propane stoves, saying they were safer and all other parks allow them. The commission voted for a “study” to allow propane stoves for a year at “one or two parks.” Douglas will determine if they were a fire risk, and decide if they could be made permanent.
“[The study] would have to prove that in fact propane use at campsites is a fire hazard and unsafe,” he said.