Ramirez Canyon Blues: Yet Another Fight to Preserve Public Access in Malibu

Politicians in California are seldom accused of suffering from long-term vision, so when Gov. Jerry Brown killed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's ill-advised plan to sell off a number of state-owned buildings it was a most pleasant surprise. Schwarzenegger's plan would have sold off valuable state-owned assets for a short-term budget fix with more than a few very negative long-term consequences.

Could it really be that Gov. Brown, without any evident presidential aspirations (though I haven't heard him definitively rule out a run for the White House in 2016, so you never know), was actually trying to distance himself from petty political considerations in order to do the right thing? Might we really be able to expect some long-term vision from the state's top politician?

Evidently not.

For while Brown rightly recognized the long-term negative impacts of Schwarzenegger's proposed selling off of state assets -- at the bottom of the market, no less -- his most recent budget proposal takes Schwarzenegger's folly one step further by proposing to sell off state-owned parkland.

At least under Schwarzenegger's scheme, the state would have had the continued use of the buildings that were to be sold through a leaseback plan. However, under Brown's plan to sell off parkland, the general public would be robbed of the use of the parkland forever.

What could possibly be Brown's "rationale" for such a proposal? Is he seriously suggesting that it is good public policy to sell off state parkland for private development? What about protecting the public's right to enjoy our unique natural resources?

One of the most high-profile properties skedded for the auction block is the Ramirez Canyon Park, a pristine area of unparalleled natural beauty in the hinterlands of Malibu. As the LA Times wrote: "Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said the place is for sale because it 'does not serve any essential state function. The state should not be the landlord for a place that hosts mountain retreats.'"

Just how does this contention fit in with the realities of our state park system? Well, here's a little pop quiz. Guess which popular state park has the distinction of being the most profitable property in the entire state park portfolio. The Big River State Park, maybe? How about Sutter's Fort State Historic Park? Perhaps Zmudowski State Beach?

Nix. The most profitable state park is actually the Asilomar State Beach on the Monterey Peninsula. And why is it the most profitable? Um, that'd be because of the Asilomar Conference Grounds, a part of the state-owned property, which is officially known as the "Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds."

Indeed, one look at the Asilomar website makes clear why it is so popular: "Located along the Pacific coast within minutes of Monterey, Carmel, and Pebble Beach, Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove offers an ideal venue for meetings, conferences, and special events. Whether you're planning an educational conference or a corporate retreat, Asilomar will welcome your group with attentive service, professional planning, and creative catering, in a truly inspirational setting."

Guess what the second most profitable state park is. That'd be Crystal Cove State Park with its massively popular rental cottages. The cottages are so much in demand that it's next to impossible to book a room there, just one of the reasons that the park is currently undergoing a major lodging and restaurant facility expansion.

Funny, there's no talk from Elizabeth Ashford or the governor about selling off Asilomar or Crystal Cove. Perhaps Gov Brown's proposal to unceremoniously dump the Ramirez Canyon Park is secretly intended to blot out any memory of Mannywood and the ignominious, steroid-tainted end of his short-lived Dodgers career. Nothing else really makes much sense.

Do Ashford and Brown seriously believe that making the natural wonders of California accessible to the general public is not serving "any essential state function"? Ashford's quip, "The state should not be a landlord for a place that hosts mountain retreats," seems odd, particularly in light of Asilomar. Guess the key word in her statement must be "mountain," as in "The state should not be the landlord for a place that hosts mountain retreats, but it's OK for the state to be a landlord for a place that hosts beachfront retreats." I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out why beach retreats would better serve a public function than mountain retreats. They say there are cat people and dog people. Morning people and night people. Beach people and mountain people. Maybe it just comes down to the fact that the gov is a beach person.

Of course, Ramirez Canyon is in Malibu-by-the-sea, so one could think that the beach connection would be sufficient to convince the governor's office of Ramirez Canyon's beach bonafides.

Beyond a potential beach preference, what then could be the real reason that Governor Brown wants to sell of one of the state's treasured natural resources?

Perhaps we can find the beginnings of the truth in an advocacy group with the fair-sounding name, "The Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund." Sounds like this would be a group of committed environmentalists, preservationists and/or conservationists, doesn't it? Sounds like a group that is fighting the good -- and in California often quixotic -- fight to stop some of our beautiful and vanishing parkland from falling victim to the ravages of overdevelopment. The very name suggests that Ramirez Canyon might be threatened by a strip mall, casino or maybe even an oil refinery...

Yet the "desecration" that the "Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund" is attempting to avoid is none of these things: it's public access. That's not to say that the Ramirez Canyon "preservationists" don't want to preserve Ramirez Canyon. In fact, they do want to preserve Ramirez Canyon. For themselves.

And so, when "threatened" with increased public access to publicly owned natural resources, they attempt to use the cloak of "preservation" to advance their own selfish interests. By the way, they've been at it for years, with lawsuits, maneuvers and personal attacks on the staff of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the public park entity which runs the park and has been attempting to increase public access to the site.

In what could very conceivably be a case of political connections at play, it is very possible the Fund and its supporters are behind Gov Brown's double-standardized push to sell off the property. Just last week, the Preservation Fund prez, Rick Mullen, was up in Sacramento with his lobbyist, glad-handing politicians and trying to garner support for a sell-off of the Ramirez Canyon Park for private residences. And all under the guise of "public policy considerations."

Of course, it's really a matter of "private policy considerations" -- of private homeowners who don't want the general public to have access to publicly owned property and to the natural beauty that they themselves enjoy and take for granted in their own backyards.

In addition to lobbyists and lawyers, the "Preservation" Fund has hired professional video producers to try to plead their cause on YouTube. It's not really a convincing case.

Their main argument seems to be that Ramirez Canyon isn't safe. It's a fire hazard, the residents claim, and the narrow access road could lead to a disaster of unmitigated proportions. Guess what? The Conservancy has offered to widen the road at the Conservancy's sole expense, thereby increasing access for emergency vehicles and making the area safer. The residents' response was: "No way." In truth, it seems they really weren't all that concerned about "the safety issue."

Then there's the related, bogus "cost" issue, which was also at the core of Schwarzenegger's attempts to sell off government-owned property. Says Rick Mullen, an LA County firefighter himself: "The state has spent millions and millions of dollars fighting big fires over the last few years. The state is also deeply in the red right now. And the idea that a state agency is proposing something that, one, is unsafe, and has the potential of costing millions more in terms of firefighting seems kind of inappropriate."

Of course, it's true that our state is in dire financial straits, but allowing the general public access to our state parks is hardly the reason. In fact, in these tough economic times, we probably need our state parks more than ever. For all the great work done by our public safety officers, including firefighters, one of the main causes of our state's ongoing financial woes is the unsustainable framework of public employee salaries and benefits, with public safety employees almost always close to the top of that ladder. A system whereby people can retire at the age of 50 with 90% of their highest salary with cost of living adjustments for life is simply not sustainable. You wanna look for ways to balance our budget, look first to instituting fair and sustainable salaries and benefits for public employees -- not to shutting or selling public parks.

The Fund's enmeshed "safety" and "cost" arguments aren't exactly paragons of logic. Does the anti-public access faction really think that posting "No Trespassing" signs to the general public and building new private residences will avert a catastrophic fire? Wait a minute, they're claiming steadfastly that "it's not just a question of 'if' the Big Fire comes, but 'when.'" If the Conservancy could be made to disappear, as is the Fund's wish, are they seriously suggesting there won't be any fires? And if there are fires in a post-Conservancy, "Keep the Public Out" world, do they mean to suggest that there won't be firefighting costs? Just how will building private residences and denying the public access to a public park result in firefighting savings of "millions of dollars"?

Of course, if the situation is really as bad as the horror scenarios painted on the video seem to suggest, perhaps the whole canyon should be evacuated and all the residents relocated to safer areas. And with all the talk of natural disasters, perhaps we should also let the residents of Ramirez Canyon know that we live in a major earthquake zone, and it's not just a question of if the Big One will come, but when. Perhaps the safety-conscious Ramirez Canyon residents could all be at the forefront of a full-fledged movement to resettle the at-risk residents of Southern California and avoid all the looming potential disasters around us.

Another one of the major complaints of the Ramirez Canyon group seems to be that the property is underutilized. While the park continues to be used for programs that give seniors, the disabled and inner-city kids a chance to experience nature up close and personal, the Conservancy has severely limited the use of the park, evidently with the neighbors in mind. Nonetheless, the Preservation Fund writes: "The people who live in Ramirez Canyon seriously doubt these programs (with seniors, the disabled, and inner-city kids) in fact occur."

The Conservancy's programs with seniors, the disabled and inner-city kids are well-documented. So rather than complain about "underutilization," the Ramirez Canyon residents should actually be pleased that the disturbances from these programs are so minimal as to lead them to doubt their very existence. At its core, however, the "underutilization" argument is a valid one, and for the sake of the general public, the Conservancy should indeed seek to remedy the underutilization of this prized resource.

The non-use argument on the part of the Fund seems to suggest that the general public isn't getting bang for its buck, and I would tend to agree that the current very limited uses of the park which restrict access to the park don't serve the general public well enough. But if the property is underused by the general public, then the logical response would be to ensure that there is more public access and more public use. Not less. Selling off the property is most certainly not the cure for underutilization of the property. That would be one of those "Operation successful, patient dead" scenarios, which, unfortunately, we seem to see all too frequently when the politicians show their handiwork.

So whether it's "all about utilization" or "all about the money," however you slice it, public access to Ramirez Canyon Park should be expanded. If the facility is underutilized, then figure out ways to allow greater utilization and public access, and, yes, do so in a way that creates the fewest impacts for the neighboring residents. If the facility is supposedly "costing the taxpayers" money, then address the purported shortfall. As Asilomar shows, if utilized properly, Ramirez Canyon could become a major moneymaker for the state park system. If money really is the issue, then an intensified, profit-generating use should be advocated along with the implementation of all reasonable mitigations.

If the "Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund" folks want to find an alternative, less intrusive access point to the parkland, fair enough. But then the absolute focus of all their lobbying and outreach efforts should be on developing a road to the parkland from Kanan Dume Road and in figuring out a way to finance its construction. Such a road would presumably also increase their own fire safety by providing an alternate access point for emergency services. Unfortunately, however, the group's focus on selling off the property seems to suggest that their true interest lies in keeping the public out and off of public property. Unfortunately, it's a variation on a theme we've heard in Malibu all too often.

The Ramirez Canyon Park is located on donated land. Clearly, selling off donated property could also have a chilling effect on future potential donors, and while doing so might be a great "private policy consideration" on the part of those who want to keep the public out, it is not good public policy.

State Senator Fran Pavley, a true environmentalist, who represents both Ramirez Canyon and Beverly Hills, has suggested that no serious consideration of selling off Ramirez Canyon has taken place yet and that "there's no reason to overreact."

I truly respect Senator Pavley's stance on environmental issues and hope she won't consider this commentary an overreaction. While it's true enough that there's no need to overreact, there's also no reason why we shouldn't nip a very bad idea in the bud. I'm sure that Senator Pavley and her colleagues have plenty of other important issues to wade through -- as does the governor, incidentally -- and that they can do without unnecessary distractions in their efforts to get our state back on track again. Let's just never forget that part of that track always should include the respect for, preservation of and broad public access to the varied and spectacular natural resources within our great state.