November 1, 2010 - From the October, 2010 issue

Public Access in Malibu Affirmed by Coastal Commission

In the following TPR exclusive interview, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston details the long and contentious process that culminated in a California Coastal Commission (CCC) ruling earlier this month allowing camping along the coast in the Malibu area. As he makes clear in the following, Edmiston believes that the action of the CCC to approve of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan indicates that the Coastal Act works.

Joe Edmiston

The readers of The Planning Report would welcome your assessment of the California Coastal Commission recent decision affirming SMMC's public access and camping plan for the city of Malibu.

The Coastal Commission's unanimous approval on October 13th of our public access and camping plan is significant in two ways. Most importantly, this decision paves the way for the first new coastal camping in Southern California in several generations. It also means that, when fully implemented, we will have 280 additional campers overnight in the city of Malibu. That has never happened before. There is no public camping in the city of Malibu. It is a testament to the fact that the Coastal Act process can work. Even though it was a very difficult process, it has resulted in significant new public access. That is very exciting to all of us.

Was it a difficult, tortuous journey to get to this "Open Access" result?

The U.S. Census Bureau could probably reflect that there are probably more lawyers per capita in Malibu than any other place. Second to lawyers are rich financiers. We had just about all of those arrayed against us. That is why it was damned difficult.

What was the deciding issue for the Coastal Commission's action?

The commissioners were most impressed with the idea of connecting the parks that we have already acquired. We have spent tens of millions of dollars acquiring an open space system that is today principally used by the residents of Malibu. This action opens it up to everybody. That was what impressed the Coastal Commission most-people can come from all over the state to enjoy these coastal resources.

What is the promise and upside, going forward, of the Coastal Commission's decision? How will Malibu's newly accessible camp sites be integrated into SMMC's network of parks?

At just about any other place in the Santa Monica Mountains, there is a coordinated system of trails-not as many campgrounds as we should have, but there are picnic areas, overlooks, trail heads, etc. A big gaping hole in that picture was the city of Malibu. Now we are going to fill in that recreational map with a dozen new picnic areas and four or five new trail heads, in addition to the camping areas and filling out the Coastal Slope Trail. What is now an open spot in the recreational map of the Santa Monica Mountains, we hope, within a couple of years, will be filled in with recreational facilities.

In reading through the Commission's ruling on "Agenda Item 7a, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan," it is clear from the record that the city of Malibu believes that the process employed by the Coastal Commission in this case did not give the city a full and fair opportunity to modify and defend its plans. What is your reaction?

The only thing that Malibu was deprived of was the opportunity to more fully and more obstructively prevent public access. Your readers will remember, because TPR followed this a couple years ago, in 2006, we had a Public Works Plan very similar to the one that was adopted, and Malibu came to us and said, "No, come to the city, go through our processes." So we did that. We abandoned the Public Works process. We went in to Malibu for a plan amendment. We had a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Malibu that talked about camping. They were going to include Charmlee Park as a camping venue. The Planning Commission approved that in October, and then in December, after a fire, the politics of Malibu changed. The Malibu City Council not only turned down the proposal that we had the MOU with the city of Malibu for, but it also unanimously adopted a prohibition on public camping-not private camping at private campgrounds but public camping.

For a whole year we went through the Malibu procedure. In 2008, when we were designing our proposal, we gave plenty of opportunity to participate. In 2009, we had a six-hour public hearing with the Coastal Commission in Marina Del Rey on the Local Coastal Plan Override. We went through the EIR process-we had a multiple-hour hearing on the EIR in early February this year. They were given all the statutory opportunities. They are complaining about an opportunity to further obfuscate. Frankly, CEQA and the Coastal Act offer all too many opportunities to obfuscate. The fact that the Coastal Commission went ahead in decisive action shows that the Coastal Act can work.

Let's turn to the ruling's positive outcomes. The park land included in the public works plan is clustered around two primary areas: Corral Canyon Park and Malibu Bluffs. What does the public works plan now enable for those sites?


For those two locations we concentrated camping closer down to the Pacific Coast Highway, to meet safety concerns. There will be a maximum of 280 people per night in these two camping locations, which is an incredible addition to the stock of coastal camping in Southern California.

Will the limited camping access now approved be enough to meet demand?

No. The periods of peak demand will fill up. I hope this will show that we are talking about the first of many available sites, not just in Malibu but in other places along the coast as well, such as Topanga Canyon; I hope there can be camping there. And I hope Malibu changes its mind on Charmlee Park. At one point the Malibu City Council said Charmlee was ideal for camping. It would be. Those are opportunities for the future. We broke the logjam with the action of the Coastal Commission.

You said the politics of the city of Malibu changed with the fire. You, more than most others, are aware of the fire dangers in those mountains. How does the approved plan deal with the challenge of fire in the Santa Monica Mountains?

We have done that I don't think has been done by any other campground in the country-banned all flame. Campers will receive a hot plate, no campfires. Flames won't be an issue. The second thing is 24-7 oversight of the campgrounds by a trained wildfire fighter. That will be a camp host, a park ranger, or another part of our staff. These people will have the power of a public officer, which is equivalent to, for example, a traffic officer, who can issue misdemeanor citations. We are doing everything we can and much more than you will find at any other campsite. The statistic you will find is that from a developed camp area-State Park, National Park, Forest Service, or any of ours-we can't find evidence of a wildfire starting from one of these organized campgrounds. It is true that people go out into the woods and have non-sanctioned campfires that go out of control. But we are talking about highly controlled camping-in fact, I call it "wuss" camping.

Can you elaborate on the ranger maintenance and supervision incorporated in the plan?

One of the first objections of Malibu-and this shows the perfidy of Malibu-was that these campgrounds were not supervised. We said, "OK, we are going to have 24-7 supervision, and we are going to have a trained maintenance person residence so they can be there 24-7." Then Malibu had the temerity to say, "Now you are putting in a full-time residence, and a full-time residence is not permitted in the open space zone." You can't have it both ways, Malibu.

What are the next steps building off this approval on agenda of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy?

First we need to go through the lawsuits. There are three lawsuits pending. That will take a lot of time; at least a year. When that is resolved, the first thing we will do is to begin building the campsite programs. We have reserved Proposition 84 money for that. The next thing is that the State Park Department will start to develop its plans for Lower Topanga. The potential for camping is significant on the Lower Topanga property. We will urge State Parks to look at that.

We will build the trail system. The trail system radius is the crown jewel of this area. We will have continuous blue water trail views from Corral all the way to Kanan Dume Road. That is a significant experience. This is the only blue water trail experience in L.A. County. That will be very popular. As soon as the courts give us the green light, we are going to have trail-building crews out there.


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