The decision by the National Park Service last month to pay a record $8 million for a tract of land in the Santa Monica Mountains was based partly on unverified reports of a higher competing offer for the property.
In memos last fall to his superiors, a staff appraiser with the park service in Woodland Hills questioned the authenticity of the purported offer, which surfaced at a critical stage in negotiations for the land in lower Cheseboro Canyon, just east of the city of Agoura Hills.
Because of the timing, the mystery offer--the origin of which was never disclosed to the park service--"has a certain odor to it" and could be "a setup deal" to raise the sale price, the park service official warned in the memos.
Tom Hickman, project appraiser for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, also urged his superiors to find out why an initial appraisal report that apparently set a lower value on the 337-acre tract was discarded without explanation.
But according to public records and interviews, agency officials approved the second appraisal without asking to see the original appraisal report. They also failed to investigate the validity of the mystery offer cited in the appraisal that they approved.
Although ardent park supporters generally have praised the acquisition, others have criticized the price and the way the deal was handled by the park service and the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based conservation group that negotiated the purchase with Oren Realty & Development Co. Inc. of Encino.
The controversy surrounding the sale reflects the intensity of the struggle between development and conservation interests in the Santa Monica Mountains, which a trust official called "the toughest" place in the Western states to negotiate for parkland.
"The pressures for development are the greatest and the land costs are high," said Lisa McGimsey, a vice president with the trust. "(With) the kind of developers you've got down here, you're usually not going to get a second chance."
The market value of mountain land varies significantly from parcel to parcel, depending on factors such as slope and zoning restrictions that may limit intensive development. In the case of the Oren property, the park service paid nearly five times as much per acre as Oren did to acquire the land in 1978.
Margot Feuer, a member of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Advisory Commission, criticized the trust and park service for agreeing to pay an "outrageously high" price that is "not substantiated by anything."
She said the price--the highest paid for a single addition to the mountain park--is likely to inflate the demands of other landowners, thus complicating efforts to acquire the 24,000 acres still needed for the park.
Dan Kuehn, superintendent of the national recreation area, said he is not convinced that the price would imperil future acquisitions and said some small tracts have been purchased at a higher cost per acre.
Dave Brown, a Calabasas environmentalist, said the park service "ideally . . . should have paid less," but credits the agency with rescuing a "valuable natural resource . . . from the grasp of a particularly aggressive developer," referring to Oren.
McGimsey said the trust had to meet Oren's price or a strategic addition to the park "would be developed, period." She said the purchase should be viewed as "a triumph of park preservation over development."
Several observers have said they believe the Oren purchase--and a flurry of smaller acquisitions since--were influenced by rumors from Washington earlier this year that federal funds to buy parkland might be frozen.
The acquisitions mean that park service officials have already spent virtually the entire fiscal 1985 appropriation budgeted for purchases in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, plus several million dollars left over from fiscal 1984. This year's appropriation was $8 million.
Brown said park service officials had indicated to him their desire to spend the funds before the freeze went into effect. Agency officials, however, said there is no direct connection between recent land-buying activities and concerns about a freeze.
The Oren property is an attractive swath of oak-studded hills and meadows just north of the Ventura Freeway. Because of its stands of ancient oaks, the property was designated a significant sensitive ecological area under county zoning laws, severely restricting the potential for intensive development. Still, the zoning might have allowed Oren to proceed with a plan to divide the property into 46 equestrian estates.