A chance remark at a Calabasas homeowners' meeting has set the stage for an unusual property swap between state and local officials that could preserve one of the Santa Monica Mountains' oldest public parks.
Los Angeles County may soon trade its 94-acre Tapia Park near Malibu Canyon for the state's 351-acre Placerita Canyon Natural Area Park near Newhall.
The exchange would make Tapia Park a segmEnt of Malibu CrEek State Park and turn Placerita park into a county regional recreation and nature center.
The idea for the swap came from the Monte Nido Valley Property Owners Assn., whose members live in an isolated neighborhood at the north end of Malibu Canyon near Tapia Park.
The group has fought for years to limit development in the mountains. Its members were heartened when the state acquired 1,100-acre Malibu Creek State Park, half a mile north of Tapia Park. Recently, the association went to court in a losing bid to block construction in the Las Virgenes Valley just north of the Malibu Creek boundary.
So residents were jolted in January to learn that the county was short on cash for parks maintenance and had solicited bids from private businesses to take over Tapia Park.
Homeowners were told that the county was proposing to grant a long-term lease to entrepreneurs wIlling to operate Tapia Park. In exchange for maintenance and supervision, the businessmen would be authorized to develop private facilities on park grounds.
The Monte Nido residents were then told that one development proposal reportedly called for construction of a restaurant and a 200-room motel-style "bed-and-breakfast" inn at Tapia Park.
"It's too bad the state can't just take Tapia over and use Malibu Creek park rangers there," one homeowner mused aloud.
Letter Urges Swap
Monte Nido association leaders decided to suggest just that to the county. A letter was drafted by the association's vice president, Linda Palmer, and sent to county parks officials the next day, urging them to consider giving up Tapia Park to the state in exchange for a place like Placerita park.
County officials liked the homeowners' idea so much that they have delayed awarding the private Tapia Park operating permit so a deal with the state can be struck. They say they had not thought of such a swap.
"A trade seems kind of logical since the state already has a presence in the area," Curt Robertson, an administrative assistant with the county Department of Parks and Recreation, said Friday. "They can manage Tapia at less cost than we can. It's an isolated park from the rest of the county system."
Frank Hovore, natural areas administrator for parkland in the northern half of Los Angeles County, said state parks officials have the resources to protect Tapia Park's natural areas without having to develop parts of it.
"The management situation is a challenge for us when resources are low. The state certainly would be able to do what's best for Tapia," Hovore said Friday.
State Official Excited
Kirk Wallace, deputy regional director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, said his agency is excited about a possible Tapia takeover.
"We're interested because it's immediately adjacent to Malibu Creek State Park. It will blend in with its seminatural state. We're pretty gung-ho about this," Wallace said Friday.
He said state parks planners are studying ways to operate Tapia Park in preparation for taking the swap idea to the state parks commission.
If the commission approves the swap, the state Legislature and the county Board of Supervisors will also have to approve it.
Wallace said the Placerita park part of the exchange would go smoothly because Los Angeles County has been in charge of day-to-day operations at the Newhall park since it fully opened in 1971.
Placerita park is the site of the "Oak of the Golden Dream," the oak tree under which gold was discovered in California in 1848. Although the state owns the parkland, the county oversees operation of a 7,200-square-foot nature center primarily staffed by volunteer docent-naturalists.
About 200,000 people a year visit the center, including about 15,000 schoolchildren on field trips.
County officials have no use figures for Tapia Park, although as many as 1,500 people reportedly visit it on sunny weekends for picnics. Officials estimate weekday attendance at several hundred.
Tapia Park's day-to-day operation has been a headache for the county since a full-time, live-in caretaker retired three years ago, said Steve Duron, a senior contracts analyst for the county Parks Department.
Tapia Park's management was turned over to a husband and wife team after that. The couple ran it for two years in exchange for county-set fees they were allowed to collect from picnic groups and campers.
That arrangement ended earlier this month when the couple's insurance lapsed and they were unable to find a carrier willing to renew it, Duron said.
Duron declined to release details of lease proposals from private businessmen interested in developing the park. He said the proposals will remain confidential until they are acted upon.
Such secrecy was condemned Friday by the homeowners association's Palmer.
"We don't feel it's right for the county to entertain bids that would cause impact on this park without input from the public," Palmer said as she stopped at Tapia Park for a visit.
"All we heard were rumors. And they were a shocker."
Palmer said no one can recall who first suggested the parkland trade at the January Monte Nido Property Owners Assn. meeting. But she said she was relieved to hear Friday that the two sides seem to favor the idea.
"The state now owns Malibu Canyon down to the Malibu Lagoon and it owns the Backbone Trail that leads from the canyon, past the park, and on over that ridge to Malibu Creek State Park," Palmer said.
"It makes sense for the state to protect this park too."