Relationship between foundation, landowner sours over expansion battle

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The Foundation for the Junior Blind wants to expand Camp Bloomfield, but a landowner says it will require cutting down oak trees on his property and cause environmental damage.

By Zuzana Freeman/Special to The Malibu Times

In what may be the culmination of a long-simmering tension between the Foundation for the Junior Blind, an organization that serves blind children, and local landowner Jeremy Joe Kronsberg, a court date has been set to settle the issue as to whether the organization will be allowed to expand its Camp Bloomfield and have permission to widen an existing road on Kronsberg’s property.

A trial date has been set for April 18, where the foundation is seeking a court order that gives permission to renovate and expand its camp, which would require widening an existing roadway that traverses Kronsberg’s property from 8 feet to 20 feet in some places, in order to meet Los Angeles County Fire Department requirements. The camp is located in Triunfo Pass, on land north of Leo Carrillo near the boundary of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Rather than proposing to construct a shorter access to Mulholland Highway across its own property, the foundation is suing Jeremy Kronsberg and his wife to force them to widen the access road, which would require cutting down oak trees on the Kronsbergs’ property. The Foundation for the Junior Blind said that building a road on its own property would be too expensive.

Kronsberg, a retired screenwriter and director, has lived in a stone cabin built in the 1930s next to the camp for the past 12 years. He said the plans to expand would ruin the environment. “I support blind kids and have for 25 years,” Kronsberg said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “If they need to upgrade their camp I support that, as long as it doesn’t damage the existing environment. But now, instead of just helping blind kids, the foundation is using the camp to make a profit by renting it out to other groups.”

The original land use permit gave permission for the foundation to run a camp for blind children only, two months of the year. Currently, the foundation rents out the camp year-round, to local groups and community organizations not exclusively made up of blind children.

Bob Ralls, president of the Foundation for the Junior Blind, said the accusations have been blown out of proportion. “This is not a plan to expand, it’s a rebuild of the existing facilities,” he said. “We want a building with a large room that the kids can meet in. We want to refurbish the boys and girls cabins and dining hall. We’ve been up there for 50 years and the electricity and plumbing have deteriorated to the point where we have to redo them and get rid of termites and dry rot.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that the expansion would increase the size of the camp, from 28,000 to 44,000 square feet, in a plan designed by architect Brenda Levin, who also was hired to restore Los Angeles City Hall and Griffith Observatory.

The foundation has its local supporters including Andy Stern, Malibu mayor pro tem. “I can think of no better foundation than that of the Junior Blind,” he said. “I think it is astonishing that anyone would oppose this expansion.”

And Kronsberg has his. Malibu residents Efrom and Ruby Fader, who have volunteered at Camp Bloomfield and contributed to the Foundation for the Junior Blind, wrote a letter to the editor published in The Malibu Times Jan. 27 issue. “After reading the article in the Los Angeles Times about the plans for expanding the camp grounds and the adverse environmental effect it will have on the pristine Arroyo Sequit stream and steelhead trout, we will no longer participate as volunteers,” they wrote.

Local property rights activist Anne Hoffman said, “I always like to see the best environmental alternatives, so the Foundation for the Junior Blind should make every effort not to cut down protected oak trees. We should really try to bring more children into the park. If it can be done without cutting down the oak trees, it should. In a situation like this we should be able to live harmoniously with nature.”

Kronsberg’s lawyer, Paul Berra of Lavley & Singer, said of the tree removal requirement in an interview with The Malibu Times Monday, “The foundation’s own consultants have informed regional planning that dozens of the Kronsberg’s oak trees will be destroyed or at least damaged. The foundation has no right to renovate their camp at the expense of the Kronsbergs or the environment,” he said.

However, Ralls said in an interview last week, “We don’t have any control over anything that is a requirement. We are upgrading the facility to meet relevant regulations on the property. There is a minimal impact to the trees. We haven’t got through the permit process and don’t know what they will allow.”

Although one of the possible effects from the camp’s expansion is on the Arroyo Sequit stream, home to the endangered steelhead trout that runs between the camp and the Kronsberg’s property, David Brown, conservation chairman of the Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, is most concerned about the camp burning down.

“It was a bad planning decision to put the camp there in the first place,” he said. “They are located in a canyon and all it takes is one brush fire to blow into the camp, and many kids would not be able to escape,” he explained. However, he also said, “Widening the access road is an issue and I’m worried that this will damage the creek and the stream.”

Brown suggested that the camp be moved to avoid destroying any oaks trees and avoiding damage to the forest and stream.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the foundation and Kronsberg that used to be amicable- Kronsberg let the camp use his meadow for an obstacle course during Camp Bloomfield’s Summer Games and provided a projector for movie nights-has soured.

Kronsberg has not spoken with Ralls for a while. “I’ve lived here since 1979 and had a good relationship with the foundation until they tried to make a forced purchase of my land in 2001, citing eminent domain,” he explained.

As for Ralls, “Mr. Kronsberg has a right to his opinion,” he said, “We invited Mr. Kronsberg to give us feedback on the plans and we are inviting other neighbors to do the same. We’ve been up there for 50 years and have been wonderful neighbors to the environment.”

(The foundation’s attorney, George Mihlsten of law firm Latham & Watkins, could not be reached for this story.)