Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Walk in the Park

Bluffs Park Open Space is currently at the center of the 2016 Malibu City Council election debate, but not for the reasons one might think. All Photos © 2016 S. Guldimann

October in Malibu Bluffs Open Space Park offers vistas of dusty golden fields and wind-swept blue sea and sky. The meadowlarks arrived this week, from wherever they spend their summers. Cold air collects at the bottom of the ravines over night and lingers into the morning hours, offering early walkers a taste of winter and the concentrated fragrance of laurel sumac, sagebrush, and skunk musk—a sort of distillation of autumn in Malibu.

The open space is a small park—just 83 acres. One rarely encounters more than a few other visitors. You might meet a wedding party taking photos, or neighbors walking their dogs. If you are there early enough or late enough you might see a family of coyotes hunting mice in the meadow, or the shy elusive bobcat that lives in the canyon. There are almost always raptors in the dead eucalyptus trees by the highway, and in a wet year the park is full of flowers, some of them common, some rare. So how did this small, quiet place end up being at the center of a maelstrom of campaign accusations during the 2016 city council race? Let's take a look.

A field of Catalina mariposas dance in the wind at Malibu Bluffs Park Open Space. This flower, which can lie dormant for years until conditions are right and then burst into bloom resembling the butterfly it is named for, is a California species of special concern.

Although Malibu Bluffs Park is a small area, it was a top priority on the Coastal Commission's first acquisitions list in 1976, together with the Point Dume Headlands. Nearly 100 acres on the bluff were purchased by the state in 1979 with the first bond money available for coastal conservation.

The city was able to buy 10 of those acres from the state as a permanent home for our community's ball fields, after the local Little League was forced to move out of Malibu Lagoon. Through a complex deal that money was used to purchase King Gillette Ranch in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains, the ball fields got to stay on the bluff, Malibu was able to build the Michael Landon Community Center, and the remaining 83 acres of open space were transferred from State Parks to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to manage, which it did by mostly leaving the property alone, until the plan for placing campsites on the site emerged, kicking off a massive battle.

The California Coastal Commission was extremely reluctant to allow the existing ballfields to be placed in their current location, it seems unlikely that they are going to let them be doubled and placed here, no matter what they city wants:

 In the aftermath of that battle, and with a different city council at the helm in Malibu, the City of Malibu traded its 590-acre Charmlee Wilderness Park to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for Bluffs Open Space. The swap is still not complete. Both parties agreed to a five-year exchange to determine if the properties could be developed in the way desired.

For Charmlee, that means overnight camping facilities to accomodate hikers traveling the Coastal Slope Trail and also campsites for disabled parkgoers.

At Malibu Bluff Parks Open Space, the City of Malibu is seeking four baseball fields, an aquatic center, a skatepark, a dog park, an amphitheater, basketball courts, a tot lot, lawn areas, a community/visitor center and all of the necessary infrastructure to make that a reality, including ancillary structures like pool pumps, restrooms, batting cages, storage sheds, parking areas, driveways and at least one new entrance from Pacific Coast Highway.

This is the city's proposed plan for Bluffs Park Open Space. The orange dotted line indicates the ESHA—Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area—boundary. Almost all of the proposed development goes right up to that line. If the Coastal Commission required the project to meet the ESHA buffer requirement mandated by the City of Malibu's Local Coastal Program, some of the facilities planned will have to be scaled back. Here's a link to the city's ESHA designations. And here's what the city's laws say about ESHA buffer for coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitat: "New development shall provide a buffer of sufficient width to ensure that no required fuel modification area will extend into the ESHA and that no structures will be within 100 feet of the outer edge of the plants that comprise the [ESHA] plant community." 

Here's the same map with red used to mark a rough approximation of the areas the city would be limited to build in if they are required to meet the 100 feet of ESHA buffer requirement. Both entrances to the 83-acre park are either fully in ESHA or in the buffer zone. So is most of the central parking lot and the entire skatepark. 
A master plan has been developed that reconfigures the city's existing 10-acre Bluffs Park and incorporates a nearly two-acre parcel that will be donated by the developer of the adjacent five-house subdivision, as well as mapping out the amenities the city is seeking to construct in the open space portion of the park. 

The riparian habitat on the edge of the current Bluffs Park parking lot is problematic. It would become the driveway for the central mesa's athletic complex in the city's plan, but is 100 percent ESHA, which means it can't be developed under the city's own Local Coastal Program. It seems unlikely that the Parks and Recreation Commission is going to get everything on its wish list without a struggle. Even if the Coastal Commission approves the plan as is, the Sierra Club has already gone on record opposing the city's plan. Their argument is that the park was purchased by the people of the state of California with bond money earmarked expressly for open space and that a municipal recreation complex does not meet that definition. Appeals and lawsuits appear inevitable.

The plan includes relocating and replacing the Michael Landon Center with a new, larger visitor/community center, moving the two existing baseball diamonds to the central section of the open space park and adding  a Pony League field and a softball field, and rearranging the current field area to accommodate three soccer or mixed use fields.

You can see that the city's plan follows the outlines of the Conservancy's camping proposal areas fairly closely, but with one major difference. Campsites don't require the same ESHA and fire setbacks that other types of development do. Further complicating the issue are those little blue, yellow and green squares, which represent the location of special concern species that require extra protections. The blue dots represent the mariposa lilies that are a special concern species and the tot lot and lawn area proposed by the city are practically on top of them. The tot lot is also on top of a Chumash cultural resource. Somebody didn't bother to look at the records before plunking down amenities. 

The problem with this plan is that when the Conservancy wanted to place campsites at Bluffs Park, the city went through great lengths to argue that the whole park was Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, where nothing can be built. The city attorney has stated that the park is ESHA on the record to the Coastal Commission and the city's official overlay map showing ESHA supports that.

This is the official ESHA overlay map for the section of Malibu from Corral Canyon to the Malibu Pier. Bluffs Park is the green blob under the word "Coast." The only parts that aren't mapped as ESHA are the current ballfields and the portion of the western mesa where the aquatic facility is proposed. 

Update: A reader pointed out that a much stricter 200-foot ESHA buffer is required for mapped ESHA, according to section 4.4.2 of the city's Local Implementation Zone

Now that the city wants to build amenities on the park the argument is that there isn't that much ESHA after all. However, ESHA isn't the only concern. Bluffs Park Open Space has plenty of interesting geologic features, including numerous landslide areas and a large section of the Malibu Coast Fault. 

That big black line is the Malibu Coast Fault. It's the reason GE, which owned the property in the 1960s, was never able to build a facility on the site, and why plans for an Alcoa tract development were scraped. The orange lines are landslides. The arrows show the direction of the slides. The notation Tm refers to the Monterey Formation that is poking up through the alluvial soil. The mark that looks like an upside-down teeter-totter in the middle of the circle around the Monterey Formation indicates the direction and angle of the upright bedding—80 degrees in this location. The presence of Tv—Conejo Volcanics, and Tr—Trancas Formation (mostly marine shales) intruding through the alluvial soils hints at a turbulent past caused by ancient floods and deformation from the earthquake fault. This image is from the SMMC's Environmental Impact Report for the site and shows the proposed campsites. The city has not yet completed its EIR.

Here are a couple of photos of the bluff-side landslide areas for a visual reference. No arrows or dotted lines needed.

Now let's take a look at this quote from a letter to the editor that ran in a recent issue of the Malibu Times:

"...If the slate is elected, they will constitute a majority vote of council and, as promised, will kill any community-supported plans for Bluffs Park for the next four years. By then, the swap with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy will have expired and the conservancy will once again have ownership and control of Bluffs Park.

Most residents are unaware that in 2010, the Coastal Commission approved the conservancy’s plans to add 35 campsites to Bluffs Park. Therefore, by “stopping the swap” the “Band of Three,” commonly referred to as the slate, will have succeeded in eliminating much-needed sports fields and other recreational amenities for all Malibu and, instead, provided us with a regional campground in the heart of our beloved town. What a horrible thought."

The slate refers to City Council candidates Skylar Peak, Rick Mullen and Jefferson Wagner.  The author of this letter appears to be unaware that the Coastal Commission, not the city council, will have the final say on what can built at Bluffs Park. He also appears unaware that the city, not the Conservancy, has the final say on whether the park can be used for campsites. 

Perhaps he is also unaware that Rick Mullen played a major role in the incredibly difficult legal battle to ensure that the city retained the right to make that determination. You can read about it in Rick's own words here

Bluffs Park has become an increasingly popular destination for wedding parties. This couple and their photographer probably didn't pick this park for its recreational facilities.

The letter quoted above is just one of several spurious attacks on these three candidates over Bluffs Park. None of these letters mention the property's constraints, or that even if the ballfields and the skatepark are off the table because of the environmental constraints, the city council could still decide that the prospect of athletic facilities on the western mesas is worth pursuing. It's even possible that the city might keep the park as a—what a novel concept—open space, and seek a flatter, less controversial, less geologically active and less environmentally sensitive area to build the other athletic facilities.

You know what would happen if the swap were to fall apart? And no, the answer isn't "the end of the world" the way the letter writer and his friends seem to think. Instead, Malibu would take back Charmlee Wilderness Park, one of the most beautiful places in the Santa Monica Mountains, with 590 acres of ancient oak groves, spectacular ocean views, dramatic rock formations, and miles of trails. I can think of worse things. If the swap is made permanent, the Conservancy has plans to use Charmlee for a campground, but deed restrictions that run with the land ensure that the areas not used for camping will remain wilderness.

There is nothing wrong with recreational facilities. Every community needs places were residents of all ages can participate in activities like organized sports and art and enrichment classes, but the location for those amenities needs to be appropriate. It's great the city has taken the time to collect community input on Bluffs, and that they are currently going through the same process at our newly acquired Trancas Fields Park, but the land and the resources on it must ultimately dictate the use. At Bluffs, one could argue that we appear to have created a wish list full of wonderful things but forgot to start with the physical constraints of the site. It's like buying a fantastic piece of furniture at an estate sale and only realizing that it doesn't fit through the front door when you get it home. That's why an environmental impact report and the Coastal Commission approval process is so important. And it is also why electing the right city council to represent us is critical. 

There are currently two baseball fields and a multi-use/soccer field at Malibu Bluffs Park. The desire for more recreational facilities goes all the way back to the 1960s, when Malibu (it wasn't a city yet) was promised Little League fields next to the proposed nuclear power plant in Corral Canyon, and a swimming pool heated with the sea water that would be pumped in to cool the reactor, too (what could possibly have gone wrong?). 

The author of the letter is correct when he states that the "Band of Three" would ensure a council majority. From the perspective of conservationists and keepers of Malibu's history, this would be a good thing, because Peak, Mullen, and Wagner have not only vowed to uphold the Mission Statement, they all have a documented history of actually doing so that has been chronicled in the local media.

This beautiful vista includes many of the elements that make turning Bluffs Parks into a recreation center a problem: landslides, erosion, the protected mariposa lilies, precarious cliffs, and the earthquake fault. It also reveals another major problem. That green field in the left corner is the western mesa. It's completely isolated from the rest of the park by Marie Canyon. To build the proposed aquatic center there would require a new entrance off of Pacific Coast Highway at John Tyler Way. An entrance located right on the edge of ESHA, within the 100-foot ESHA buffer. There was a time when the Valley of Yosemite National Park had tennis courts and other recreational facilities. The culture has changed as the park service has realized the focus needs to be on nature. Perhaps its time Malibu grows up, too.

Regardless of who is elected in November, the Malibu City Council, not the Conservancy, has the final say on camping at Malibu Bluffs Park. Even if the swap doesn't come to pass and the city reclaims Charmlee and hands Bluffs back to the Conservancy, any camping facilities that the SMMC proposes for Bluffs Park would have to be approved by the city. 

In both scenarios, the California Coastal Commission has a key role in determining what can be built, and because the proposed development falls under the designation of "public works project" it can be appealed to the Coastal Commission if residents or environmental organizations have concerns that they feel were not adequately addressed by the city. 

We've talked a lot about the Malibu Mission Statement this election cycle, but this is exactly the kind of situation that document is intended to address. Does the proposed development meet the goals of the Mission Statement? If it doesn't, can it be rethought, redesigned, scaled back? For too long, the city has relied on variances to make things fit, and it has fallen to residents and environmental organizations to appeal these patched together projects to the Coastal Commission. 

City officials discuss their plans for the park shortly after the swap was announced. They are standing in the middle of California perennial grassland habitat, on top of the hill created by the earthquake fault out of stone from the Monterey Formation. This group was comprised entirely of well-meaning city officials with an enthusiasm for sports. No one thought to include scientists in the discussion. Taking the environmental and geologic constraints of the park more seriously might have helped prevent headaches with the Coastal Commission and the environmental community later. 

Camping may not belong on Bluffs Park, but it's time we stopped thinking of it as "horrible." It's especially discouraging when appointed officials cling to this mindset. A city-owned campground would be a good way to ensure low cost visitor serving amenities are available in Malibu on our terms, with no fires and a year-round live in camp host to keep an eye on things. In other coastal communities this has been a successful way to meet the needs of visitors and even raise revenue. Maybe we aren't there yet, but it would be nice if this was a conversation we could eventually have. 

The statement about "eliminating much-needed sports fields and other recreational amenities for all Malibu and, instead, provided us with a regional campground in the heart of our beloved town" isn't based in fact. It's just election scare mongering. That's why its so important to listen to what the candidates say, and more importantly what they have actually done, not what's said about them.

Here's a reminder of what makes Bluffs Park such an incredibly special place for residents and visitors, and why the City of Malibu's Mission Statement proclaims Malibu 
"a unique land and marine environment and residential community whose citizens have historically evidenced a commitment to sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect that environment and lifestyle, and to preserve unaltered natural resources and rural characteristics."


  1. I live in Malibu outside the city lines, therefore I do not have a vote for Malibu's City Council. Although, I have lived in Malibu 40+ years. Let's leave the Bluffs Park alone. The transformation of Malibu has already begun. As citizens I believe we need to choose to leave the landscape vegetation wildlife and ocean alone, practicing only the very best conservation techniques possible. This is an altruistic point of view, I know.

  2. Its a no Brainer that the ambitious Parks and Rec facilities and view blocking building infrastructures should NOT be built on the last remaining coastal Bluff in LA county meant to be preserved as natural open space and should be built on the already flat Land available in the Civic Center . The Yamaguchi property that just came onto the market would be a good starting point

  3. Great historically informative post on the background of Bluffs Open Space Park and the egregious secret agreement to swap the 590 acre Charmlee Wilderness Area -- the crown jewel of Malibu -- for the 80 acre Bluffs Open Space Park purchased with California taxpayer dollars to remain as an undisturbed Open space coastal bluff, with plans to pack it with as many active recreational activities they can stuff into it -- all in violation of the General Plan's Open Space Element policies of PASSIVE recreation, NOT active recreation!! This is reiterated in the Vision and Mission statement, as well.

    Now that the city is purchasing Trancas Field, I envision all the active recreational facilities proposed for Bluffs Open Space Park but fit, will be transferred to Trancas Field, and we won't have any more natural open space left in Malibu.

  4. Great historically informative post on the background of Bluffs Open Space Park and the egregious secret agreement to swap the 590 acre Charmlee Wilderness Area -- the crown jewel of Malibu -- for the 80 acre Bluffs Open Space Park purchased with California taxpayer dollars to remain as an undisturbed Open space coastal bluff, with plans to pack it with as many active recreational activities they can stuff into it -- all in violation of the General Plan's Open Space Element policies of PASSIVE recreation, NOT active recreation!! This is reiterated in the Vision and Mission statement, as well.

    Now that the city is purchasing Trancas Field, I envision all the active recreational facilities proposed for Bluffs Open Space Park but fit, will be transferred to Trancas Field, and we won't have any more natural open space left in Malibu.