Malibu: Residents are concerned that campers may start fires despite rules prohibiting open flames at the proposed camps. Courtesy image

If the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) has its way, camping could be established at Malibu Bluffs Park — an 84-acre park that sits at the foot of Malibu Canyon Road, below the Pepperdine University Campus and overlooking the Pacific Ocean — as early as December 2023.

The MRCA, a joint powers agency that partners with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to preserve open land around the Santa Monica Mountains and open it up for visitors, recently announced it was preparing an environmental impact report to study adding camping to Malibu Bluffs, to the tune of eight to 12 yurts, accommodating 10-12 people per yurt; 16-20 tent cabins, accommodating six to eight people per cabin; and 18-22 tent pad sites, accommodating 6-8 people per site. In total, given MRCA estimates, the campground could see up to 480 visitors per night in a city notorious for its lack of overnight visitor accommodations (the California Coastal Commission recently estimated the city has about 130 hotel rooms, compared to more than 3,000 in Santa Monica). 

In addition to overnight accommodations, the MRCA proposes day-use facilities including a restroom, parking area for 30-40 vehicles, amphitheater, and other developments including a ranger residence, medical building, office, kitchen, and water storage tanks. 

The campground is designed to be “cold camping” with fires prohibited, but residents have long been skeptical about the concept that out-of-town campers will stick to bans on campfires, cookstoves and gas lanterns.

The majority of Malibu residents appeared none too thrilled about the proposal, which has drawn ire from the community including at a recent public hearing in late October. 

At that hearing, on Oct. 27, Malibu resident E. Barry Haldeman summarized concerns shared by many neighbors.

“One of the biggest concerns we have in Malibu is fire, and this is being planned as we’re in the worst drought we’ve ever had in the Santa Monica Mountains,” Haldeman said. “And so, one of the things that has to be looked at very carefully is how you’re going to prevent fires. I don’t know what ‘flameless camping’ is.”

Concerns over the proposed campground at Malibu Bluffs — alongside the resurrection of another campground across town at Malibu’s Ramirez Canyon Park — come amid changes to the zoning codes of the larger Santa Monica Mountains area that could usher in more camping to the mountain range that makes up Malibu’s backyard.

During a meeting on Nov. 15, the LA County Board of Supervisors formalized zoning changes that pave the way for what the Board calls “low-impact camping” throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, including in some areas previously protected due to their status as Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, or ESHA.

The administrative action came about seven months after Supervisors held a public hearing to approve the change, against the wishes of hundreds of Malibu residents who called and wrote in imploring Supervisors to decline the move.

Last Tuesday, one person called in to the meeting to ask that the formal zoning changes be reconsidered: Malibu Deputy City Manager Elizabeth Shavelson. In her statements, Shavelson referred to written correspondence the City provided to the Board prior to the Tuesday hearing.

“Generally, the City seeks more reliable oversight for campsites, particularly on red flag days, and more clarity on ‘fireproof cooking stations,’” the City of Malibu’s letter stated. “The Commission’s modifications still leave too much uncertainty as to how compliance with restrictions on camping will be adequately monitored and enforced.”

The Bluffs Park camping proposal came about because of Malibu City Council members’ acute concerns over wildfires. At the time, council feared that the MRCA would bring camping to Charmlee Wilderness Park near the city’s northern outskirts. 

Between 2014 and 2019, the two agencies had undertaken a pilot project that gave control of MRCA’s Malibu Bluffs Park, located in the heart of central Malibu, over to the city, in exchange for 532-acre Charmlee Wilderness Park, on the city’s outskirts. In the charred wake of the 2018 Woolsey Fire, council members there said they feared the MRCA would soon bring camping to Charmlee, where campfire flames could easily flare up into a large and destructive fire.

In April 2019, Malibu City Council narrowly voted to hand off control of Malibu Bluffs Park back to the MRCA in exchange for gaining stewardship of Charmlee, a 532-acre wilderness park tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains open space. 

Now, following the Board of Supervisors’ decision to change zoning codes in the mountains, low impact camping could come to the hills outside Malibu’s back door.

The public comment period for the environmental impact report that will study campgrounds at Malibu Bluffs Park and Ramirez Canyon Park remains open through Dec. 16. More information on the proposal can be found at bit.ly/MRCAMalibuCampingEIR.

emily@smdp.com

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