Little by little, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area continues to grow, as public agencies work to fill in the gaps in the patchwork of open space that comprises the largest urban national park in the world.
At its November meeting, the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy approved a $10 million grant application for four key parcels of land in Malibu, totaling 428.55-acres. Negotiations for the properties are being handled by the SMMC’s sister agency, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and the final outcome is uncertain at this time, but the sellers have indicated willingness to proceed with the sale, and the grant approval is an important step in the process.
One of these sites—125 acres located above Sweetwater Mesa—is a major victory for the conservation community. This property was ground zero for a multi-year battle between U2 musician David Evans, known as “The Edge” and his investors, and a coalition of environmentalists spearheaded by the Sierra Club over a housing development that would have entirely rearranged the remote and almost inaccessible mountainside, destroying Chumash cultural heritage and environmentally sensitive habitat that is home to threatened and endangered species. The Edge lost.
The case revealed the appearance of corruption at the highest level of the Coastal Commission and resulted in changes to how ex parte communications are dealt with by the agency. It also led to the departure of several commissioners, including one who made headlines when it was revealed that he traveled to Ireland in 2015 for a U2 concert and ex-parte meeting with Evans shortly before the vote on the project.
The Sweetwater Mesa property is sandwiched between the southern end of Malibu Creek State Park and Carbon Canyon Open Space. Preserving this land for open space was the outcome conservationists hoped for from the first. Assuming the acquisition occurs, the majority of this property will likely become a wildlife preserve, while the southernmost tip will provide a connecting segment of the Coastal Slope Trail.
The other three Malibu properties—the Primrose, Archery and Rubens sites—total 276.55-acres and are located in Latigo Canyon adjacent to each other and to Solstice Canyon Park, Escondido Canyon Park, and Dan Blocker State Beach. These properties are owned by the same group of investors as the Sweetwater Mesa property. They contain a range of environmentally sensitive habitats, including the increasingly rare coastal sage scrub biome, and also offer spectacular views of the coastline and a deep canyon with a blueline stream. Adding this land to the SMMNRA will protect habitat and wildlife connectivity, and provide new passive recreation opportunities.
“The 428-acre acquisition furthers California Executive Order N-82-20 to preserve 30-percent of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030 and meets WCB 2014 Strategic Plan goal to ‘fund multi-benefit projects that support species strongholds/refugia, habitat connectivity and corridors, and threatened and endangered species while simultaneously providing additional public use without degradation to the ecosystems’” a staff report on the grant proposal states.
A smaller but still important acquisition in Topanga is also in the process of being negotiated. The MRCA has submitted a grant application to acquire the 27.7-acre Mill Creek Ranch property in the Old Topanga Canyon watershed.
Mill Creek Ranch opened in 1973, and provided English-style riding lessons for two generations of equestrians, before going out of business during the pandemic. The property would offer “a turnkey facility for outdoor uses that need level ground, good road access, parking, and restrooms.” the staff report states. The MRCA has stated that it is working with nonprofits to partner on the operation of the facility, which has horse arenas, stables, parking, many onsite trails, water wells, and three residences. It also includes approximately 1,400 feet of Old Topanga Creek and ten acres of undisturbed environmentally sensitive habitat.
The MRCA’s option on the Mill Creek Ranch property expires on December 12, but the odds are good that the acquisition will move forward.