Skeptics to council: Stop the swap

Second- and third-graders from Juan Cabrillo and Point Dume Marine Science Elementary Schools compete at Bluffs Park. Devon Meyers / TMT

A vocal group of concerned residents petitioned the City Council Monday night to reconsider its proposed trade of Charmlee Wilderness Park to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) in exchange for full control of Bluffs Park. 

The group, comprised primarily of slow-growth advocates and residents in west Malibu who are veterans of the devastating wildfires of 2007 and earlier, says history could be repeated if the conservancy succeeds in plans to install eight new campsites in Charmlee. 

“We’ve all lived through fires,” resident Eric Rowen said. “For state agencies, it’s not their concern whether 50 rich people’s houses burn down every three or four years.” 

The City Council voted on Jan. 14 to negotiate a potential deal for the swap. The city currently owns 10 acres of Bluffs Park, consisting principally of ballfields, the Michael Landon Community Center and an adjacent parking lot.

Approximately 40 people attended a meeting hosted by activist group Preserve Malibu on Sunday at the Point Dume Club to discuss alternatives to the swap, which supporters have argued is a rare opportunity to gain badly needed space for youth sports fields. On Monday, Rowen and about a dozen other residents urged the council not to put the “cart in front of the horse” and grant SMMC Director Joe Edmiston full control of 532-acre Charmlee in exchange for 83 acres at Bluffs Park. 

With memories of the devastating 2007 Corral Canyon fire seared fresh in the minds of many Malibu residents, Edmiston’s very public plans to build eight campfire sites at Charmlee — should he obtain it — have gotten residents up in arms. 

The 2007 fire was started by late-night revelers who had an illegal campfire burning in the Corral Hills. 

The Corral Canyon Fire Safety Alliance is now petitioning to ban overnight camping in Corral Canyon and other high-risk fire areas in Malibu. 

“For any group to allow camping in known high-risk fire areas would be irresponsible from both a civic and a liability position,” the petition states. 

As The Malibu Times went to press, the online petition had garnered 787 signatures. 

Opposition claims extra ballfields not needed 

Other residents claimed the need for extra field space was overblown. 

“There is nothing that shows any of us in the public that there’s really a demand [for fields],” said resident and Preserve Malibu member Brian Eamer. 

Eamer and several residents claimed they had yet to see any data proving that children in Malibu are in need of added sports facilities, and cited a study from the Santa Monica-Malibu school district that projects a shrinking school population in coming years. 

Mayor Pro Tem Joan House, the initial proponent of the swap, maintained that she’s witnessed a battle over fields among youth organizations. That sentiment was echoed by many parents and coaches in attendance at the Jan. 14 council meeting. 

“The bottom line here is we don’t have enough field space,” said AYSO representative Mark Konopaske at that meeting. “There’s a tremendous capacity for use of these spaces [at Bluffs] for the kids and community.” 

On Monday resident Diana Mullen remained unmoved by the claim and said she often sees empty fields, especially at Bluffs. She also found Mayor Lou La Monte’s appearance on a CBS2 news segment on Sunday ironic. 

“While Mayor La Monte was decrying the lack of ball fields to practice on, he was standing right in front of an empty ballfield on a perfectly sunny Sunday afternoon,” Mullen said in front of the council, drawing laughter from the crowd. 

La Monte was visibly frustrated by Mullen’s criticism and later said the field was closed at the time for maintenance. 

“There were so many inaccuracies coming from that podium,” La Monte said, referring to the public comments. 

La Monte, along with House, Councilmembers Laura Rosenthal and John Sibert said the criticism of a potential deal was too much too soon. They’re awaiting city staff ’s findings before seeing if they’ll get on board with the deal. 

“The idea of a swap is just an idea, it is important for us to realize is that all we’ve had so far is opinion,” House said. “There has been no detailed staff report.” 

Amount of usable land questioned 

Others also questioned the amount of usable acreage the city will have if it gains full control of Bluffs Park. 

Planning Commission Chairman John Mazza and former Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner said they had walked a 10-acre area being pitched as a site for new ballfields. They described it as difficult to access with very uneven landscaping. Wagner estimates that the city will end up with about two usable acres for recreational purposes. 

“Any of the two acres that we would wind up with would be very difficult to even access before you even started looking at the engineering,” Wagner told the council. 

City Manager Jim Thorsen disputed Wagner’s assessment. 

“As a former civil engineer I’ve taken a look at the contours and am confident that there will be more than two acres,” he said. “Will there have to be grating? Absolutely there will have to be grating. But there’s definitely, in my opinion, much more than two acres to be used there.” 

Wagner has continuously pushed the council to look into potential uses of 1.75 acres that the City of Malibu is guaranteed from the so-called Crummer property adjacent to Bluffs Park. Developer Robert Gold allotted the acreage to the city as part of plans to build five homes, property Wagner argued could be used for ballfields.