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Malibu roiled by plan for overnight camping, more trails

Some residents say they fear that natural areas will be despoiled. But backers of greater access say foes want to keep the beauty for themselves.

December 23, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Behind a gate at the end of a private Malibu road, nestled amid sycamore and coast live oak trees in a complex once owned by Barbra Streisand, sits the headquarters of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

The site's woodsy serenity belies a clash now echoing through the community.

To the consternation of city officials and canyon residents, the conservancy is proposing to allow overnight camping and create more public trails in some canyons and hillsides. Goals include completing a long-envisioned Coastal Slope Trail and providing more parking and greater access via public buses and shuttles.

This suggestion has sparked a dispute over access in a city famous for such battles.

Property owners say they are concerned about traffic, errant Carl's Jr. wrappers and careless hikers or campers who might flick cigarettes into tinder-dry vegetation. Mostly unspoken is the suggestion that excluding the hoi polloi could also keep property values lofty.

"The general public doesn't respect the land and take care of it," said Marian Hall, a longtime Malibu resident and author of "Malibu: California's Most Famous Seaside Community." "Most of them come here and think somebody else will pick up their trash."

Proponents of easier access, on the other hand, contend that some Malibu residents, in the guise of protecting nature and wildlife, are selfishly trying to keep away outsiders and the traffic, noise and intrusions they inevitably bring.

The debate has put many Malibu residents at odds with a man once considered a savior: Joseph T. Edmiston, the conservancy's executive director.

Central in the dispute is the compound in narrow Ramirez Canyon where Edmiston often welcomes visitors at the agency's offices. Streisand donated the 22.5-acre haven to the conservancy in 1993.

It is now a gated state park -- one that relatively few people know about or visit. At the request of neighbors, the California Coastal Commission requires that the public use the property by appointment only.

The situation is ironic, indeed, for a state agency whose mission is to further the use of public lands.

Land disputes have long plagued Malibu, going back more than 100 years to Frederick Hastings Rindge, who once owned the entire place.

Rindge searched for years for a coastal haven in California that rivaled the spectacular rivieras of Monte Carlo and Italy's Amalfi coast. He found it in 1892, when he bought the 13,000-acre Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit.

"Here in these almost hallowed hills, in this calm and sweet retreat, protected from the wearing haste of city life, an ennobling stillness makes the mind ascend to heaven," the businessman wrote in his 1898 book, "Happy Days in Southern California."

Once Rindge had secured his paradise, he erected gates and posted "No Trespassing" signs. After he died, his widow, May Knight Rindge, exhausted her fortune fending off the mighty Southern Pacific railroad and engineers who wanted to build a railroad and a highway across her property.

Many of Malibu's nearly 13,000 residents feel just as possessive and protective of their bucolic haven. Living in Malibu involves trade-offs. Summertime beach traffic holds locals hostage. Come fall, Santa Ana winds and arid hillsides produce occasional conflagrations. Winter brings rain, mudslides and lane closures on Pacific Coast Highway. Spring is cleanup time.

In return, residents can lope on horseback through rustic canyons, rest their eyes on ocean sunsets and trudge through chaparral and coastal sage scrub on the hillsides.

"You start with the dynamic that the city of Malibu exists because of a coalition of environmentalists and NIMBYs and people who just didn't want to pay to have a sewer," said Mary Nichols, director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and former state secretary of natural resources.

Indeed, fearful of dense development, residents voted to incorporate in 1991 to stop construction of a sewer line promoted by pro-developer Los Angeles County supervisors. Over the years, residents have also successfully fought plans to build a nuclear reactor and a freeway.

"I think, historically, the community has been hostile to public access," said Peter M. Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission. "It really has always smacked of exclusivity."

Since its creation in 1980 by state lawmakers, the conservancy has spent $450 million to help preserve more than 60,000 acres of state parkland. Bearded and brash, Edmiston has been its only executive director. He has often tussled with locals.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Ramirez Canyon.

When Streisand donated the land, she pictured it as the home of an environmental think tank. That plan didn't work out. In the mid-1990s, to help defray maintenance costs, the conservancy began renting out the site for weddings, movie shoots and private parties.

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