City of Malibu Lobs First Volley in Battle over Camping on Public Lands
• Critics Contend Council Capitulated to Textbook Mass Hysteria Fomented by Wildfire Fears
BY BILL KOENEKER
BY BILL KOENEKER
Malibuites who have become inured to criticism for impeding public beach access are beginning to see similar criticism emerging on newspaper op-ed pages and the Web of what is perceived as new efforts by local residents to block the public from using publicly owned lands in the canyons and mountains as well.
At what may have been one of the most raucous sessions in recent memory, an emotional appeal by local residents at last week’s Malibu City Council meeting pressured members to unanimously vote to seek a ban on all new overnight camping in the city in the aftermath of two recent wildfires.
At the same time, the council voted to seek a Local Coastal Program amendment policy to prohibit camping in open spaces and commercial recreational land, members approved a scaled back version of the LCPA sought by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for its park and trails plan.
Shortly after the hearing, the Conservancy issued a press release condemning the vote and calling it an effort “to limit access to parks in Malibu.”
The council, bowing to the public’s concerns about camping and fire despite the lack of hard data confirming any correlation, voted 5-0 to ask the California Coastal Commission to certify a Local Coastal Program amendment that would prohibit all overnight camping.
“Fortunately this isn’t the end of the battle. We will bring our case to the California Coastal Commission when, unlike the Malibu City Council, the broad public interest can get a fair hearing,” said Joe Edmiston, the executive director of the SMMC.
Edmiston accused the city and its residents of trying to have it both ways. “Obviously, the city wants the open space and trails purchased with taxpayer dollars, but they won’t allow us to provide the parking and amenities that will permit anyone but local residents to use them.”
The SMMC head said, “The Conservancy has a statutory obligation to protect access to its parkland, even if a group of affluent homeowners doesn’t want to let anyone but himself or herself in. We will do everything within our means to meet that obligation.”
Council members readily acknowledge the matter could once again result in a showdown between the city and powerful state agencies, including the California Coastal Commission, which must approve the city’s request for a LCPA.
Edmiston, who appeared disappointed and angry at the outcome, may have best summed up the council’s actions when he said, “When you say Malibu is up against the state, you have laid down the gauntlet.”
Councilmember Sharon Barovsky, who made the motion for the ban that includes only limited ADA camping at Ramirez Canyon Park, said the city would be taking on a fight and would need local support when it goes before the Coastal Commission.
“What the consequences are, if we lose [at the commission], is Mr. Edmiston will have what he wants without the city,” she said.
Councilmember Ken Kearsley, who talked about how the mission of the SMMC and the CCC is to allow public access on parkland, said the city’s efforts were to try to limit camping to get a handle on it.
Acknowledging that the council was a policy about-face and seeking a ban because of public pressure, Kearsley said, “Now you are asking us to take a crapshoot by saying no to camping. Now we are going to have it out of here and move it to the Coastal Commission and then it will go to the courts. It will be up to a judge.”
Edmiston, who at the outset of the series of hearings had said he thought the council would treat the state agency fairly, had been convinced by city officials to go before the municipality to seek a permit for the proposal. The city had persuaded Edmiston, after the threat of litigation on both sides, to proceed before the council body rather than go directly to the Coastal Commission in the form of a public works plan.
Edmiston noted that the Conservancy had made substantial compromises only to be told to scale back its plans further.
“The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has had a statutory obligation since 1982 to implement a program to provide recreation access from downtown Los Angeles and the inner city to the Santa Monica Mountains zone in order to provide recreation opportunities for all income and ethnic groups wishing to enjoy the Santa Monica Mountains. We intend to meet our statutory obligations and fully expect the California Coastal Commission to support our position,” he added.
SMMC officials maintain they made a “good faith agreement,” with the city and had further agreed to other provisions in an effort to reach consensus.
After a year of negotiations and public hearings, the council voted for less public access than was previously allowed, according to SMMC officials.
The night before the city council meeting, Edmiston had proposed a revised plan that was outlined by the city attorney that included no camping in Charmlee, camping in Corral Canyon and Escondido Canyon and increased activity at Ramirez Canyon Park. The SMMC head also said he would waive the time for action if the council wanted to consider his revised request, but the council had been pushed in another direction by that point.
Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich, who from the outset was the lone opponent of overnight camping, praised her colleagues for their turnabout.
Councilmember Andy Stern said he supported the measure because if the council turned down the LCPA, the matter would have gone directly to the Coastal Commission without any further input from the city.
Edmiston told the council they had still not banned camping since it was going on right now in Corral Canyon at the RV park.
He said the difference is that the cost there is $40 or $50 a night and that limited camping to those who could afford that amount.
Conley Ulich replied there are 300 campsites in or near Malibu where camping is available for $15.
“We welcome people to Malibu. We just need to educate them [about the dangers of fire],” she said.