On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to allow overnight camping in the hills above Malibu. The vote took place immediately after nearly two dozen Malibu residents made public comments asking them not to approve it, with most citing the inherent fire danger to a town that just lost 500 homes in the Woolsey Fire.
The decision came after a weeks-long public outcry from Malibu that included a letter-writing campaign urging supervisors to reconsider making the change.
The vote involved adding an amendment to the Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Program (LCP), Land Use Plan (LUP) and Local Implementation Program (LIP) to revise the definitions and provisions for carry-in and carry-out camping and low-impact campgrounds. The revisions were based on the outcome of the Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund vs. California Coastal Commission trial court decision, recorded in September 2017, in which campgrounds located in Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA) were determined to violate the Coastal Act.
According to arguments made on Tuesday, the Coastal Commission seems to be betting its new definition of “carry-in, carry-out camping” will not have an impact on ESHA, and therefore won’t violate the Coastal Act. The term carry-in, carry-out refers to camping where campers “arrive at a campground by foot or other non-motor vehicle transportation from associated parking areas, ADA compliant drop-off areas, trails or bikeways, rely only on equipment and supplies that can be carried to the site, and leaving nothing behind at the campground upon departure,” according to a staff report.
A “low-impact campground” is defined as an area of land designed or used for “carry-in, carry-out” tent camping that is accessed by foot or wheelchair, with no roads or permanent structures.
At the start of this agenda item, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said, “This is all about public use of ESHA in the Santa Monica Mountains. The California Coastal Commission has to approve our LCP and amendments, and their mission is all about public access. How do you limit public access to protect ESHAs?”
She indicated that in negotiating with the coastal commission, she got in as many restrictions on camping as possible, without eliminating it altogether, which coastal would not have allowed.
“The Santa Monica Mountains already prohibit open flames, except in the fireplaces of residences,” Kuehl said. “And we are limiting the number of campers to 12 people, with daily inspections and a registration process. We pushed hard to get these limitations, and if these don’t pass, the commission may decide to implement broader uses.”
Public comments were given by nearly two dozen local residents who made the trip to downtown LA. One of them, Al Griswold, stated there would be unauthorized fires and unsupervised camping, and that this was coming too soon after 500 homes in Malibu were decimated by the Woolsey Fire.
“Do visitors really need to spend the night?” he asked.
The Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund representative Douglas Carstens talked about grading that might be done and better protecting the ESHA and said parking shouldn’t be allowed in so-called “H2” (a level of ESHA).
Three members of Malibu’s five-person city council also made the trek downtown on Tuesday morning, including Mayor Karen Farrer.
“I ask you to support ESHA and wilderness areas, and not set up for camping,” Farrer implored supervisors. “A ranger coming by once a day doesn’t address the threat. It will take years for Malibu to recover financially, physically and emotionally [from a fire].”
Other speakers were more blunt.
“Any suggestion of camping now is tone-deaf,” Mayor Pro Tem Mikke Pierson said.
City Council Member Jefferson Wagner explained that, while Malibu welcomes visitors and his business depends on them, he still couldn’t get on board with the idea of camping without supervision.
“Joe Edmiston and the MRCA do not have the resources or manpower to supervise,” he stated.
Barry Haldeman said he contacted the LA County Fire Department about this plan, and they told him they didn’t know anything about it. He and other speakers asked the board to take the time to have the plan reviewed by the fire department before voting on it.
And the same themes re-occurred in the remaining speakers, who claimed Joe Edmiston at the MRCA didn’t have the resources to inspect campers, parking lots shouldn’t be allowed, the mountains already have enough visitor-serving facilities in terms of camping and hiking, that the timing of this camping amendment is poor just after the Woolsey Fire, and that Malibu residents will be put at risk if it passes. Several gave the example of the 2007 Corral Fire being started by a careless, unsupervised campfire.
Kuehl summarized at the end by saying she recognizes that Malibu is “an incredibly traumatized community,” but emphasized that county officials were trying to strike a balance between public safety and public access.
The amended coastal plans will now head to the California Coastal Commission for approval.