MALIBU — A three-judge Court of Appeal panel on Thursday affirmed a lower court’s ruling that voided an agreement between the California Coastal Commission and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to allow overnight camping in Malibu.

Malibu city officials sued to get the agreement tossed out over concerns about camp fires getting out of control, threatening wildlife and residents’ property.

“This decision is a very big deal because it puts a limit on the commission’s ability to interfere with local planning decisions,” Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal said in a press release. “In this instance, the commission overstepped its bounds and made planning decisions that are within the city’s jurisdiction. We are pleased that the court has held the Coastal Commission to limits of its authority. This case was always about local control and Malibu will never stop defending its right to local control.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John A. Torribio ruled in July 2011 that the Coastal Commission overstepped its authority when it amended Malibu’s Local Coastal Program (LCP), over objections from the city and local residents, to approve a plan by the conservancy that would allow overnight camping on its Malibu properties.

In his decision, which arose from lawsuits filed by the city and Ramirez Canyon homeowners, Torribio wrote, “The court finds that the commission exceeded its authority” when it approved the application by the conservancy against the city’s wishes. Torribio also ruled that any subsequent application by the conservancy to the Coastal Commission would have to include specific proposals, rather than general ones as in the current plan, and that the commission must allow 30 days for public review of any proposals.

City officials characterized the decision as a victory, while the state agencies called it a procedural setback.

In a press release, conservancy officials noted that Torribio ruled on the procedure rather than the plan itself.

“We are not going to let the lawyers keep the people out of parkland that belongs to all of the people of California,” said conservancy Chair Antonio Gonzalez. “This is a social justice issue, an issue of public access.”

The camping issue dates back to 2006, when the conservancy first pitched what it called the Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan Overlay, which includes overnight camping at three Malibu canyon parks owned by the conservancy, as well as permission to have a certain number of events at one of the parks, located at what is known as the Streisand property in Ramirez Canyon. After running into resistance to the plan from area residents (and because the camping regulations were not allowed in the city’s LCP), the conservancy agreed to negotiate with the city to amend its LCP to allow camping.

However, the destructive Malibu Canyon and Corral Canyon fires in late 2007 raised public sentiment against camping due to fire concerns. When the Malibu City Council backtracked from a tentative agreement with the conservancy that would have allowed camping, the conservancy bypassed the city and proposed its own plan to the Coastal Commission by way of a seldom-used procedure called an “LCP amendment override procedure.”

The Coastal Commission in 2009 approved the conservancy’s plan, to which camping at Bluffs Park was added at the hearing after public comment, and denied a competing LCP amendment proposed by the city of Malibu. The city then sued, alleging the Coastal Commission had overstepped its bounds and usurped a local city’s power, and that the commission did not provide sufficient public notice of its plans under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The LCP override is a rare procedure intended for use when a public works project or energy facility development is being requested that meets “public needs of an area greater than” the local jurisdiction, and if the request was not anticipated by the applicant making it when the LCP was certified by the Coastal Commission.

The conservancy’s plan would create a total of 29 overnight camping sites at Ramirez, Escondido and Corral Canyon parks; allow 32 special events (parties of up to 200 people) per year at the conservancy’s Ramirez Canyon property (donated by Oscar-winner Barbra Streisand); a 32-space parking lot at the top of Winding Way and improvements to local trails to create the Coastal Slope Trail that will connect the east and west ends of Malibu.

Though the proposed plan would prohibit campfires, residents have expressed doubt in the past over the extent to which that rule would be enforced.

Adkisson is the associated editor of the Malibu Times. This article first appeared in that publication.

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