What may have been a routine resolution approval by city council Monday became a heated confrontation after Council Member Rick Mullen took city staffers to task over what he perceived as bullying from the MRCA (Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority), aided by the actions of city staffers.
The MRCA, headed up by Joseph T. Edmiston, also in charge of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, has for years been at odds with residents over alleged mismanagement of parkland throughout Malibu. Complaints range from lack of ranger presence to lack of basic visitor-serving amenities to the issue of opening up private neighborhoods to public trail use. That conflict has led to numerous lawsuits, including a current suit working its way through court wherein the public agency sued individual private Malibu residents, ostensibly for constructing a gate across a private road in Sycamore Park (which plaintiffs claim was an effort to block legal public access).
According to Mullen, the MRCA has also been guilty of threatening residents with potentially lengthy or costly appeals on projects when they are “at their most vulnerable.”
The item before council on Monday, Aug. 26, was final approval of a public access map that had been in the works since 2012.
The map is designed to include all the “recorded and existing lateral and vertical public access easements and public beaches,” with “lateral access easements” running along the shore and “vertical easements” connecting public roads with the shore.
According to Mullen, many of the easements granted by private homeowners in Malibu were the result of arm-twisting on behalf of the MRCA—with plentiful aid provided by the City of Malibu.
Mullen began by pointing out that, since the first version of the map was created in 2002, lateral accessways increased from 313 to 587.
“Now, where did all those come from?” Mullen asked.
“Since the last map that was adopted in 2002, there have been a number of these adopted by MRCA,” Principal Planner Adrian Fernandez described, adding, “In a lot of cases, they are offered by property owners.”
“Are they usually a condition of approval by the coastal commission—kind of a shakedown?” Mullen asked.
“A lot of them were, and if the applicant offers them now, we do add those as conditions, but it’s a voluntary condition that the property owner is choosing to do,” Fernandez said.
“Has the city been involved in some of those shakedowns on behalf of the MRCA through the years?” Mullen asked.
“The city has not forcefully required property owners to grant an offer to dedicate; they’ve all been voluntarily offered,” Fernandez replied, repeating again that all easements were “voluntarily offered” by property owners. “It’s something they offer, knowing it’s something that could help, if in the rare case the project is appealed to the coastal commission.”
As the conversation went on, Council Member Mikke Pierson—a longtime planning commissioner—jumped in to say in the “hundreds of projects” he saw go through planning, “there was never any discussion on whether something should be approved in any way based on that at all, and no pressure from staff at all, that I could see.”
“I can tell you, I’ve seen pretty serious shakedowns by the planning commission,” Mullen told Pierson, mentioning an instance involving longtime commissioner Jeff Jennings.
After listening to further explanation by Fernandez, Mullen said he felt staff were “sugar coating this,” based on his personal experience in the Ramirez Canyon neighborhood—the “poster child for friction with the MRCA.”
“To characterize it as, ‘Well, you know, we just, people volunteer it,’ that’s nonsense. The city’s been doing it for a long time, and I think it’s wrong. The city’s been doing that for a long time, and I sure hope you’re not an agent of the MRCA, sort of a de facto agent of the MRCA, by doing these shakedowns. I have a lot of experience with this,” Mullen said, adding he has seen his whole neighborhood come out against pressure from the MRCA.
“I just wanted to comment, council member, that at no time is staff an agent of the MRCA,” City Manager Reva Feldman replied.
After more conversation involving Mayor Jefferson Wagner—who said they “recognized that game playing that was going on in the trails commission” years ago and resolved the issue (with regard to trails maps—not beach access)—Mullen circled back around to his complaints with the city.
“OK, but I still didn’t get an answer. Do we still do that, where we ask for public accessways to the beach in return for expedited processing? I mean, why would anybody [give up an easement without it being suggested]?” Mullen asked.
“The answer to that is no,” Assistant Planning Director Richard Mollica replied, adding, “it’s usually a result of a letter from the MRCA or the coastal commission prior to the hearing... we share that letter with them and we give them the choice.” That choice often leads to residents offering access to avoid a perceived threat of an appeal.
“What I asked was, do we do that and offer them a smoother path to approval? And it sounds like, yes we do, and we are acting as an agent for the conservancy,” Mullen replied, adding, “I would characterize that as you’re acting as an agent for the MRCA because you’re the planning staff and you’re dealing with that. And that’s my view of that. You say, ‘No,’ and I say, ‘Yes.’”
Mollica said the city simply passed along the agency’s letter—not adding any pressure.
“I do understand how you see that; however, I should just add to that, we simply forward the letter. We give the choice to the applicant, but in the decision made by the planning commission or if there’s an appeal to the city council... that lateral access easement doesn’t have a bearing,” Mollica said.
“Let me characterize what you just said—at the 11th hour, after the applicant has gone through the incredibly arduous process to get something approved through the City of Malibu, which can take a long time, they get this letter that lets them know they’re going to have a problem if they don’t give something up,” Mullen replied. Later, he added, “The implication is, because you’ve delivered this letter from the MRCA at the 11th hour when they’re at their most vulnerable and they see their project going down the tubes, it’s a shakedown. I think it’s a shakedown and I think it’s wrong and I don’t think the city should do that.”
“With all due respect, and we certainly understand what you’re saying—and you’re not wrong in what you’re saying—but the city has to share the letter from the coastal commission to the applicants,” Feldman replied. “We don’t have the ability to withhold that letter. I’m trying to protect staff; they’re not doing anything wrong in the process. Is it wrong that we’re getting a letter in the 23rd hour? That’s where the problem lies.”
Feldman said she would work with staff to see if there was any way to address those concerns.
Council Member Skylar Peak, who called the practice “basically extortion,” suggested there might be a solution to remove the easement offers from the permit process—but, finally, made a motion to approve the map.
The motion passed in a unanimous, 5-0, vote.