The state Department of Parks and Recreation and a prominent anti-poverty organization are trying to compromise on the group's controversial proposal to run a conference center and lodging in Malibu Creek State Park for elderly and handicapped inner-city residents.
A parks department planner will be assigned to work with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee to reduce the scale of the project and give it a more rustic flavor, it was decided at a meeting Monday at the Sacramento office of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).
Measure Specified Use for House, Land
The project, which has been stalled for four years, was mandated by the California Legislature. A special measure required that the park's Hunter House and six acres surrounding it be used for five years by the Watts committee. Waters was instrumental in getting the Watts group added to the legislation, which was originally designed to obtain five acres of state land on a seaside bluff for the Malibu Little League for five years.
Now the Watts committee is in danger of losing $157,000 being held for the project by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. If the state and the committee have not signed a contract for the project by June, that money must be returned to the state's general fund.
Although the league has flourished and recently received an indefinite extension for its ballfields on state property, the Watts committee's plans ran into criticism from local parks officials and environmentalists.
Waters and Ted Watkins, administrator of the anti-poverty group, said in January they believed that the disparity was a result of racial discrimination and the Watts group's relative lack of political clout as compared to the Malibu residents.
Indeed, environmental activists had questioned both the league and the Watts committee's use of state land, saying that no one group should control a portion of a public park.
But parks officials said the situation was not nearly so clear cut.
The league ballfields were made part of what will become a 93-acre park with trails and picnic areas. The fields are to be open to the public when the league is not using them.
Officials Expected Housing Proposal
As for the Watts group, parks officials say they originally expected the legislation to lead to a proposal to house about 50 people in the Hunter House, built in 1948 as a movie set, and in a few new buildings next to the house.
Later, the proposal was expanded to 48 new buildings, housing 96 people, which would be financed by renting the facility more than 65% of the time "for corporate meetings and staff retreats, weddings and other private occasions," according to a letter Watkins wrote to Waters in March. The group also wanted to use the land for 30 years rather than five.
"The scale of that development was not in keeping with the park setting," said Les McCargo, deputy director of the parks department and a participant at Monday's meeting. "That's a Motel 6 type of development. If you're just looking to build a motel, there's no need for that to go in the park."
So Waters, Watkins, McCargo and Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the mountains conservancy, gathered to discuss the matter.
Waters said the parks department had not explained its concerns to the Watts group. She said she sponsored Monday's meeting "with the idea of doing something and getting these (parks) people off the dime."
No 'Serious Assistance'
Waters said the parks officials "haven't given any serious assistance. If you're really sincere about helping someone with a project, you don't just say no. You say why and what can be done about it."
McCargo had a similar complaint about the Watts committee. "I don't think that they have communicated with the department very well."
The result of the meeting, said Waters, is "it's clear there isn't going to be any 'no.' "
Said McCargo: "We're trying to go back to the original proposal."
One major obstacle is that the Watts committee is unsure whether a smaller-scale operation will be financially practical. "We hired the people they recommended for the study," Watkins said. "The people that we hire say these are the things necessary to make this place self-sustaining. . . . We're not going to run this with Watts Labor Community Action Committee money."
The parks planner will try to help the group get some grants for the project, McCargo said.
The conservancy's Edmiston said he doubts that local critics of the proposal would be appeased by the compromise envisioned at the meeting.
The Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, which represents 17 community associations near Malibu Creek State Park, wrote to the parks department in April, supporting the "worthy purpose" of the project but objecting to any new construction in the park.
Federation officers could not be reached for comment on the outcome of Monday's meeting.
David Brown, an environmentalist who serves on several parks advisory boards, said he is not sure how to react. "It depends what they mean when they say they are scaling back. Fifty people in a dormitory setting would not take up as much space as 50 people, each in a 320-square-foot room."
And Maurice (Bud) Getty, superintendent of the parks department's Santa Monica Mountains District, said he would not comment on the meeting until he had spoken with the participants himself. Getty has opposed both the league fields and the Watts committee's plans.