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Private Interests Collide Over Use of Park Lands

January 16, 1986|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

On an oceanside bluff owned by the state, the Malibu Little League has bulldozed a level surface, erected backstops and set up bleachers. Each year, hundreds of youngsters play baseball, softball, soccer and football there.

About five miles away, on another piece of state property in the Santa Monica Mountains, a deteriorating two-story house and nearby barn stand empty almost all the time. Behind them is a vacant field.

To Ted Watkins and his supporters, it is a symbol of injustice.

Watkins is administrator of a prominent anti-poverty organization, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. The group has long hoped to operate a lodge where handicapped and elderly visitors from the inner city could stay in the mountains overnight.

Nearly four years ago, both the Little League and Watkins' group received special permission from the California Legislature to use state land in Malibu at no cost for five years. The league got five acres on the bluff on Pacific Coast Highway across from Pepperdine University. The only other group in the special measure was the Watts committee, which got six acres in the hills, in Malibu Creek State Park, west of Las Virgenes Road.

Although the league has flourished, the Watts committee and state parks officials have not yet agreed on the details of the committee's proposed project. And so the committee has been unable to proceed with its plans to renovate the house and barn and build dormitories in the vacant field.

Watkins and his backers think they know the reason for the disparity: The league is based in Malibu, an affluent community where 94.5% of the population is white. Watkins' group is based in Watts, a poor part of Los Angeles where minorities are the majority.

The league "did their political homework, " said Louise Manuel, a planner for the Watts committee. "And look at who they represent. They don't represent any poor people."

To Assemblywoman Maxine Waters "it's just another situation that appears to be discrimination."

Waters, (D-Los Angeles), was instrumental in getting the Watts committee included in the special 1982 bill, and the situation makes her livid. "I thought what we had fashioned was a commitment," she said.

"We believe that the citizens of California, be they black from Watts or white from Malibu or Orange County or anywhere, should have equal access to state parks."

State parks officials, however, say the situation is not nearly so clear-cut.

They say they are alarmed by the scale of the Watts committee's plans.

They say they worry that the proposed project could disturb the serenity of a campground scheduled to open in the spring across a dirt road from the site.

They say that they have other uses in mind for the buildings there.

And they talk of a growing debate over the propriety of allowing any private group to control expensive land bought with tax dollars from all over the state.

Both the Little League and the Watts committee face obstacles in their separate bids to extend their special authorizations past 1987. The league wants to make its ball fields permanent; the Watts group wants a 30-year lease on the mountain property.

Uncommon Practice

Though neither group was the first in California to use state property, the practice is still uncommon, said Maurice (Bud) Getty, superintendent for the state parks' Santa Monica Mountains District, which includes both the league and Watts committee sites.

"It's a really dangerous precedent for legislators to start sectioning up the state parks for their constituents, whoever they may be," Getty said.

Each request granted, Getty said, prompts another proposal. "There are hundreds and hundreds of worthy groups out there," he said. Half a dozen have approached him in the past few years, he added.

Giving in to such demands, he said, could actually hurt public access to state land. Getty would prefer to turn away all private groups that want control of state land.

But another state official disagrees with Getty's assessment.

"If you look at it from the angle of someone who does not live in the white quadrants, that kind of . . . park preservation effectively creates a preserve for the rich on the Westside," said Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Those inland, Edmiston said, may not have cars to get to the mountains and cannot easily afford camping equipment.

The conservancy, which buys land to preserve open space until parks can be established there, also has been helping the Watts committee develop its plans.

"You have to go out of your way to make these resources useful to everyone," Edmiston said.

24 Cottages

The Watts committee wants to build 24 one-bedroom cottages and a dining hall, in addition to renovating the existing house and barn for use as meeting rooms.

The renovation alone would cost $120,000 to $130,000, said Manuel, the Watts committee planner.

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