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Cost of Coveted Railway Land Raises Doubts in Manhattan

February 23, 1986|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

MANHATTAN BEACH — A proposed agreement that would add more than 90% of the Santa Fe Railway right of way to the city's park system but would cost residents an estimated $5 million in cash and real estate comes up for public review Monday when the City Council holds a special meeting at Joslyn Center.

The meeting is expected to draw residents from throughout the city who for years have fought to preserve the valuable right of way as open space. Many of them, however, now fear that the proposed agreement between the city and Santa Fe costs too much and leaves many questions unanswered.

The two-mile-long corridor, which winds along Valley Drive and Ardmore Avenue from Rosecrans Avenue on the north to the city's southern boundary, now consists of grass, trees, recreational areas and leased parking lots. Trains began running through the property nearly 100 years ago, but in 1983, about five years after the trains stopped, Santa Fe officially abandoned the line.

Aside from the beach, the 23.3-acre greenbelt is the largest undeveloped open space in the city. If converted to a park, the corridor would increase the amount of parkland in the city by 40%.

$4.2 Million in Cash

The proposed agreement, one of several the city has discussed with Santa Fe since the railroad stopped operating here, would allow Santa Fe to develop the northern 2.1-acres of the right of way east of Sepulveda Boulevard. In exchange, the railroad would sell the remaining 21.2 acres to the city for open space, all of it west of Sepulveda.

The city would pay Santa Fe $4.2 million in cash and the equivalent of $800,000 in the form of four residential properties. In addition, the rights to develop the 2.1 acres, which include a provision for a 200,000-square-foot commercial building, are worth about $5 million--making the proposed agreement a $10-million deal, city officials said.

The proposal won approval from the Planning Commission two weeks ago but has come under attack by several city officials and residents who complain the city is paying too much for the property and is allowing too much commercial development on the 2.1 acres. Some critics say the city may also become entangled in legal difficulties because Santa Fe has been unable to produce a conclusive deed to the property, despite a two-year search by a title insurance firm hired by the railroad.

In an effort to ease doubts about ownership, the railroad has agreed to indemnify the city against any legal action regarding title to the property that may arise within five years of the agreement. The agreement calls for Santa Fe to repay the city the $4.2 million plus the fair value of the four residential lots if the title is found invalid.

'Awful Lot of Money'

"It just seems to me that this would be one heck of a deal for the railroad and not a very good deal for Manhattan Beach," said Steve Barnes, the only planning commissioner to vote against the proposed agreement and a candidate for City Council. "The concept of owning a greenbelt for use by future generations is an excellent one. It just seems to be an awful lot of money."

Barnes and other critics of the agreement, including at least one City Council member who helped negotiate it, say their objections focus on the value of the right of way. The corridor is listed as "unclassified" in the city's zoning code, but, in accordance with the code, has been considered as single-family residential for assessment purposes. The code states that unclassified property shall be deemed single-family residential.

The city's general plan, however, designates the land as "open space scenic right of way," a classification that critics argue makes the corridor much less valuable than the $10 million assessors say it is worth when zoned as single-family residential. The open-space classification would place severe restrictions on any development of the corridor.

Because of an administrative error in the early 1970s, when the general plan was adopted, the zoning code was never brought into conformance with the general plan designation, city officials said. An initiative that appeared on the ballot in 1984 would have corrected that error and changed the designation to open space in the zoning code, but the measure failed.

New Assessment Urged

Norma Bard, a member of the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission and a former city planning commissioner, argued at a city Planning Commission hearing on the proposed agreement that state law requires the city to follow the general plan designation when the general plan and zoning codes differ. She said the land should be assessed again--this time based on the general plan designation of open space.

"In order to avoid the appearance of haste and to assure the taxpayers that the negotiation is not balanced in favor of Santa Fe by basing the appraisal on the higher value of R-1 property, another good hard look should be taken before a final agreement is signed," Bard wrote last week in a statement to the press.

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