Malibu Bluffs Park is set to receive a controversial new addition in the years to come.

Local public lands agency the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), an affiliate agency with the MRCA (Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority), is moving forward with its plan to create camping in the undeveloped portion of Malibu Bluffs Park in the center of Malibu.

The proposed plan is still in its infancy but is causing much confusion and concern among locals. According to the conservancy, the campground will be “cold” (fire-less) with no permanent structures and will be located to the west of Marie Canyon—in the far western area of the park. Locals argue that the potential for environmental and community damage is high; meanwhile, MRCA is confident in the campsite’s potential for public benefit. The SMMC commissioned the MRCA, a local park agency under the control of the SMMC, to complete the project. Both the SMMC and the MRCA share Joseph T. Edmiston as executive director.

The campground project manager said the plan has been in place for decades and that the addition would give an opportunity for more people to enjoy the coast, especially urban foster children.

“Part of our program is to provide accommodations for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to come to the coast,” project manager and legal counselor for the MRCA Elena Eger said. 

The SMMC is partnering with a few organizations to bring organized camping for underserved youth at Malibu Bluffs, including Happy Trails Camp, Community Nature Connection, California Coastal Conservancy and LA County DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services), among others.

Dennis Seider, a Malibu resident, served on the Santa Monica Mountains advisory board when the MRCA proposed the campsite. He was skeptical of Edmiston’s motivation to serve marginalized youth.

“Joe [Edmiston] has been saying that forever,” Seider said. “How often does he bring those kids out to use the resources here? Except when he wants a photo op for something he’s trying to do.”

Seider also expressed concern for the possibility of homeless encampments on the campsite.

“The homeless need places to stay,” Seider said. “They typically go to campsites because that’s something they can do that has running water and bathrooms and that’s what they need. When you’re homeless, getting running water where you can drink and a bathroom you can use or a place to shower—those are the hardest things to come by.”

Malibu Bluffs was always intended to be a campground, Eger said. In the 1970s, Malibu Bluffs Park was slated for campsites by The Coastal Act, according to Eger—a disputed fact.

“This is really important, because there is a misconception of the MRCA coming up with this idea, when, no, this is how it’s always been,” Eger claimed.

Homeless encampments

Eger said the MRCA and SMMC are very protective of their resources in terms of misuse or squatting. Homeless encampments will be broken up by the SMMC rangers, Eger said.

“We patrol all the time for the homeless... We took site control of Malibu Bluffs and removed three homeless encampments that were there under the city’s control. We have compassion on one hand but we have respect on the other that these areas belong to everyone,” Eger said.

But many locals find issue with the maintenance and stewardship of MRCA/SMMC land, complaining over widespread vandalism, trash and human waste. In 2017, a case of racist vandalism at Escondido Falls made local headlines, with at least one neighbor going on record to complain that the swastika was just the tip of the iceberg.

“I wasn’t surprised to find graffiti in the canyon because so many of the trees have been already been [sic] carved up and spray painted,” Jonathan Kaye, president of the Winding Way-Murphy Way HOA, stated in a 2017 email to The Malibu Times. “But I was shocked that this racist symbol was left behind. The demographic of the hikers has changed over the years to a much tougher crowd ... I’ve been yelled at and threatened just trying to get to my home. As president of the HOA, it’s a big effort just picking up trash left behind. Plus, I’m always painting over gang signs along our private road.”

Eger said the campsite would be far from the portion of the park that is owned by the city and will only impact land that is declared open space. The campground will not impact the Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area.

Although the campsite will initially only be open to organized camping by youth groups, it will eventually be open to the public, according to Eger.

Park swap

From 2014 to 2019, the City of Malibu and MRCA were engaged in a tentative “park swap” deal, where Malibu’s government had control over Malibu Bluffs Park’s 83 undeveloped acres, in exchange for the MRCA taking jurisdiction over the 532-acre Charmlee Wilderness Park. This would have allowed the city to develop portions of Malibu Bluffs into recreational uses.

The swap involved a five-year deal designed to become a permanent exchange in 2019 but was reversed, with Malibu ceding control over Malibu Bluffs back to the MRCA, at the end of the term.

Multiple council members currently on Malibu City Council ran on a platform that included throwing out the park swap, but according to statements made during Malibu City Council’s decision to reverse the swap in April 2019—just five months after the devastating Woolsey Fire—wildfire concerns were a major factor in the swap being thrown out.

“If a fire starts in Bluffs Park, in the area we’re talking about that’s currently owned by the state and we have a lease hold over, it’s going to have major devastation to Malibu Road, just like how it did in 2007,” Council Member Skylar Peak‚ the only current member who was on council when the original swap was made‚ said at the meeting. “Not the level of destruction that can happen if a fire starts in Charmlee Park. Because if it starts up in the mountains very early in the morning, it will fan out, in the same way that our most recent fire did, and has potential to cause a lot more damage.”

Malibu Mayor Karen Farrer—then mayor pro tem for the city—put it more bluntly.

“I’ll just say it,” she said. “This looks like nobody wants to have Joe Edmiston as their neighbor. Sorry. I’ve just got to spell it out.”

Camping in Malibu

This campground will not be the first in Malibu.

“We’ve had [campsites] in Malibu for years, almost since Malibu’s been a city and before that,” Seider said. “The trailer park right here on Pacific Coast Highway between Puerco and Corral Canyon has campsites and records of how much those campsites have been used. I checked with them and their records indicate marginal use. They’ve never been full or rarely full, and the fees they charge for staying at those campgrounds are nominal. We’re not talking about anything that would prohibit ordinary folks from going there and camping there.”

Other locals expressed a similar concern. Laiken Ritchie is a Super Stars Soccer coach and uses Malibu Bluffs Park for many of her training sessions.

“Here in Malibu, we have tons of opportunities to go hiking and camping,” Ritchie said. “There are a lot of areas in the Santa Monica Mountains where you can do that and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in this really nice park that Malibu has maintained.”

Malibu resident Katya Gudis said she also wants the area to remain how it is.

“There are already plenty of already available places that won’t stress the environment as much as this,” Gudis said. “It would be a bit of a nightmare here.”

Project manager Eger said the issue is much greater than a debate over local control.

“It’s not a purely local issue; this is way broader than that,” Eger said. “This is for all the people in California.”

The SMMC is planning to use state funds to complete the project.

There is a state-wide environmental law called The California Environmental Quality Act, which requires the MRCA to disclose the environmental impact of all projects to the public, Eger said, during which the public is not only invited but required to respond to any given project with any environmental or scoping concerns.

“No one’s hiding the ball,” Eger said. “There are three times that the public can respond [to a project].”

Many details of the proposed campsites were not yet available.

“It’s conceptual, nothing is in stone at the moment,” Eger said.

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