The LA County Board of Supervisors envisions occasional through-hikers, backpacks bulging with well-worn camping gear, curling up in the grass in the Santa Monica Mountains for a few hours of shut-eye under the stars before lacing up their boots at dawn to continue on the trail. 

Malibu residents picture out-of-state families and boisterous friend groups rolling up in SUVs to campgrounds and setting up camp chairs, lighting up a campfire to toast marshmallows and drink a few beers before rolling out the next day.

On Tuesday, the Supervisors, amid vocal opposition from Malibu and Topanga residents, voted “to amend the Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Program, including the Land Use Plan and Local Implementation Program, to modify the standard of review under which resource-dependent uses, including low-impact campgrounds, may be established in H1 and H2 habitats (sensitive habitats).” In other words, certain environmentally protected areas of the Santa Monica Mountains could soon be opened up for overnight camping.

“Tents are allowed. What’s not allowed is, you can’t you can’t pitch a sleeping bag in the back of your car and car camp. You can’t drive an RV here. You can’t have, you know, 20 of your friends and do a group campground experience with large, you know, giant family tents,” LA County Director of Regional Planning Amy Bodek said during the Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday. “This is really — you’re on the Pacific Crest Trail, and you know you’re going to be hitting the Santa Monica Mountains in a couple of days, and you go on the website to make a reservation for this campground and you get there you sign in and camp and then you leave the next morning for your continuation to either northern Washington State or or Mexico, depending on what direction you’re traveling. So this is really much more limited and for, I think, folks were a little bit more hardy than I am in camping in the great wilderness.” [The Pacific Crest Trail does not enter the Santa Monica Mountain range.]

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who represents the unincorporated Santa Monica Mountains as well as Malibu, Topanga and Santa Monica, called the proposal “a good example of the art of compromise,” blending community concerns with the California Coastal Commission’s mission to protect the California coast and make it accessible for public enjoyment.

Kuehl said the low-impact camping was “essentially what you carry in and what you carry out,” making the style of camping unique in the Santa Monica Mountains, which up to this point has only traditional campgrounds such as those at Malibu Creek State Park. Kuehl also pointed out a “no-flame rule,” which will be enforced by the permit-holding agency overseeing the campground, such as the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) or California State Parks.

“The campground person is in charge of enforcing what happens on their campground under this and that means no fires,” Kuehl said. “And so if you don’t enforce it, people are going to know and you lose your permit.” 

The low-impact campgrounds will prohibit fire pits, fires, flammable devices, smoking, pets and groups larger than 12, according to the meeting’s staff report. Campsites may be equipped with “fireproof cooking stations,” that allow cooking with “flame-less cook-stoves,” and forbidding: alcohol, kerosene, unleaded gasolene, white gas, metholated spirit, propane, butane, wood, wax “or any other type of combustible material for cooking.”

Bodek, who said she agreed that the new rules were a good compromise, said camping will also be prohibited during Red Flag Warnings, citing the 2018 Woolsey Fire as an example of how easily the mountains can burn in high winds. 

“The requirements of a permit will include an operational and safety plan,” Bodek continued. “So let’s say an applicant wants to develop this … maybe it’s State Parks, maybe it’s the MRCA or maybe it’s a private individual who wants to develop this campground for low-impact camping. Part of their requirement, of their permit, is to develop both an operational and safety plan and an emergency management plan. That includes how they’re going to notify individuals that they can no longer camp; that includes how they’re going to evacuate these individuals in the case of any kind of emergency, whether it’s fire, flood or earthquake; and then also that operational plan is going to specify how they specifically deal with the Red Flag Days.”

These precautions were not good enough for the hundreds of Malibu residents who submitted commentary in opposition to the measure; many of those in opposition described their own personal losses due to the 2018 Woolsey Fire.

Noteworthy among the opponents were all five Malibu City Council members, who penned a unanimous letter in opposition to the new campground rules.

“Malibu is downwind of and on the receiving end of any brushfires in the Santa Monica Mountains like the Woolsey Fire, which destroyed 1,600 homes, 480 of which were in the City of Malibu. Our residents are concerned about any type of trail camping and camping in smaller, unsupervised remote locations than the ones mentioned above. We have expressed our opposition to that type of camping in the past,” according to the letter, which was delivered to the County on Friday, April 15. 

The letter was submitted alongside about 225 statements of opposition. Twenty-one people reached out in favor of the amendment, but all of those who left comments were opposed, making it appear that the majority of those counted as “in favor” may have been misclassified.

Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti was among those who called in to the hearing on Tuesday afternoon; there he stated that his Malibu property (and scores more) burned in 2007 due to a brush fire started by an illegal campfire burning during a Red Flag Warning.

Speaking to the Daily Press following the decision, Grisanti said he did not feel the Board compromised on any of the aspects important to Malibu residents, including implementing enforcement requirements for the Red Flag camping ban, moving campsites back at least 100 feet from protected streams and waterways, and demonstrating the feasibility of requiring only flameless cooking equipment.

“I’ve been in a business where I negotiate for a living for 44 years,” Grisanti (a realtor) said. “And a compromise usually indicates that everybody gets some of what they want. I think we lost all of what we wanted.”

emily@smdp.com