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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bluffs Park Walk Puts Proposal for Sports Complex in Perspective

• City Manager and Council Proponents See Space for More Development than First Announced

Community members had an opportunity to visit Malibu Bluffs Park to learn more about the city’s plan to develop sports facilities on the 83-acre property in the event that the proposed Charmlee Wilderness Park-Malibu Bluffs Park swap will take place.
City Manager Jim Thorsen, Mayor Lou La Monte and Councilmember Joan House were met at the park by representatives of Malibu Little League and AYSO, Planning Commissioner John Mazza, safety commission member Merrill May, and former Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich, for an informal visit to the Bluffs Park site last Wednesday.
“I’ve never been here before,” House said, saying about the vista of ocean view coastal bluffs and canyons that comprise the park now under the aegis of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. “It’s beautiful.”
Two maps were distributed on the walk, with alternative proposals for athletic facilities in the main portion of the park.
“These are just some ideas that were thrown around,” Thorsen said. “They’re just sketches.” Thorsen suggested that the ability to build athletic fields on the property could free up space at the existing city portion of Bluffs Park for other projects.
“It’s really unlimited,” he said. “You might decide that you don’t want any of these [existing] fields. You could expand Landon Center, [build a] senior center, teen center, performing arts center. Building three or four soccer fields out here would be a game changer.”
However, observers are already cautioning that the preliminary plan proposed by the city to construct as many as three soccer fields, two baseball diamonds, 150 parking spaces, a skatepark and possibly a BMX course in the main section of Malibu Bluffs Park, as well as a second potential athletic facility comprised of a mix of tennis courts and ball fields with 75 parking spaces in the western portion of the park, may be more difficult to achieve than initially perceived, due to environmental constraints.
The swap with the SMMC proposed by La Monte and House involves trading the City of Malibu’s 535-acre Charmlee Wilderness Park to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for 83-acre Bluffs Park, which is adjacent to the city’s 10-acre portion of the Bluffs.
While the SMMC will reportedly be able to add eight campsites to Charmlee, it is still unclear whether the city will be entitled to build all or any of the athletic facilities proposed for Bluffs Park
The exchange proposal marks the second time in the past 10 years that the city has attempted to trade away Charmlee for a portion of Bluffs. In the earlier attempt in 2003, the city offered Charmlee to the California Department of Parks and Recreation in exchange for a six-acre area of Bluffs Park. The state declined the offer on the basis that Charmlee was too far away from other state properties to be adequately maintained and patrolled.
Ruth Coleman, who was the agency’s director at the time, stated that the trade “presents many substantial obstacles.”
“The property is not contiguous to any of our existing State Park units in the Santa Monica Mountains, and given our current budgetary restraints it would therefore be impossible to maintain the current level of operation at the park,” Coleman said.
Both portions of Bluffs Park were acquired as a single unit by the DPR with state bonds money in 1979. In 2006, the agency transferred the property to the Conservancy, which then transferred what is now the developed 10-acre Malibu Bluffs Park parcel to the city.
Almost the entire property, with the exception of a triangular section in the far west corner, is mapped as Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area in the City of Malibu Local Coastal Program.
The Coastal Act provides a definition of “environmentally sensitive area” as: “Any area in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments.”
Both maps showing proposed development at the Feb. 13 walk were adapted from a Conservancy map showing areas of California grassland that proponents of the swap claim are exempt from ESHA designation.
However, while the Conservancy map describes the area where campsites were previously proposed as CGL—California grassland, the Draft EIR that accompanied the Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan indicates that portions of the grassland are perennial grassland, a habitat that generally receives the highest level of protection.
On the original map, campsites appear not to have been placed in the areas where this type of grassland is present. The plans discussed at last Wednesday’s walk would entail bulldozing the area and leveling it for playing fields.
According to the results of SMMC’s biologic survey, conducted by the firm DUDEK as part of the EIR for the parks plan,  “...areas containing a mix of native and non-native grassland occur in various areas of the park.”
Native, or perennial, grassland was observed in the area discussed at the walk for sport field construction. Several extensive areas of the plant community, characterized by the presence of purple needlegrass, are reportedly present throughout the higher portion of the center of the park, bordered by annual grassland and coastal sage scrub.
In a 2003 memorandum to Coastal Commission Staff on ESHA in the Santa Monica Mountains, ecologist John Dixon noted: “Native perennial grasslands are now exceedingly rare. In California, native grasslands once covered nearly 20 percent of the land area, but today are reduced to less than 0.1 percent. The California Natural Diversity Database lists purple needlegrass habitat as a community needing priority monitoring and restoration.”
Dixon continued, “The CNDDB considers grasslands with 10 percent or more cover by purple needlegrass to be significant, and recommends that these be protected as remnants of original California prairie. Patches of this sensitive habitat occur throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.”
The SMMC EIR also identified four species of special concern at the site that have not yet been addressed by the city: the Catalina mariposa lily, Calochortus catalinae; Blainville’s horned lizard, Phrynosoma coronatum; the yellow-breasted chat, Icteria virens, and the yellow warbler, Dendroica petechia brewsteri.
The report notes that a fifth endangered species, Coulter’s saltbrush, had previously been observed at the site and that a sixth species—the coastal California gnatcatcher “cannot be ruled out,” although neither was observed during the SMMC survey conducted by biologist Kathleen Dayton on April 26–28, 2010.
Longtime observers say that the extensive sports field development plan marks a dramatic change in former attitudes expressed by city officials.
“We have no idea what impacts on the environment are caused by the proposal and it’s my understanding that all property owned by the Conservancy on Bluffs Park is ESHA,” Malibu City Attorney Christi Hogin told the local media in 2009, when the conservancy proposed camping on their portion of Bluffs Park.
The California Coastal Commission and the Conservancy are expected to weigh in on any major alterations to the Bluffs property.
“If the exchange takes place and sports field development is proposed, then the Conservancy will probably respond to the environmental document, but until then it is way too premature to comment,” SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston stated in an email to the Malibu Surfside News.
Malibu residents will have a second opportunity to participate in a Bluffs Park walk-through, this time with council members Laura Rosenthal and John Sibert, on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 10 a.m.

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