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$6-Million Allocation : Park Bill Signed by President

October 23, 1986|MYRON LEVIN and JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writers

Congress has earmarked $6 million to buy land for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a compromise between a Senate preference not to allocate any money and a House appropriation of $8 million for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

On Tuesday President Reagan signed the bill that includes the park's allocation.

The money will come with restrictions that will bail out 13 private landowners who have been trying to sell their small properties to the National Park Service--which could cloud plans to buy a key tract owned by Quaker Corp. along Mulholland Highway north of Malibu.

Part of Overall Bill

Approved last week by a voice vote in the Senate and by a vote of 235 to 172 in the House, the $6 million represents nearly 12% of the $52 million allotted by Congressional negotiators for expansion of all 337 units of the national park system. Congress also restored $200,000 in operating and maintenance funds that were lopped from the national recreation area's budget during the last two years.

The park money was included in a $576-billion federal spending package for departments ranging from Interior to Defense.

In an unusual step, congressional negotiators directed the National Park Service to put a priority on "hardship" cases in the Santa Monicas. These usually involve small tracts and financially pressed owners who want to sell quickly.

In most years, with no strings attached to allocations, park service officials have concentrated on purchasing especially large or scenic properties that are threatened by development.

According to congressional and park service officials, 13 owners hold 26 hardship tracts in the Santa Monicas. The properties cover about 750 acres and will cost about $4.2 million to buy. About 300 acres are in Zuma and Trancas canyons in western Malibu. Buying the small tracts would leave about $1.8 million for other purchases in the coming year.

"I'm glad to hear that language is finally being put in" to deal with hardships first, said Bob Heagy of Malibu, president of Concerned Citizens for Property Rights. The landowner group lobbied for years against funding for the mountain park because members hoped to hold onto their land. But, recognizing that the park is here to stay, the group has shifted course, campaigning instead to direct available funds toward owners of 40 or fewer acres.

No Criticism Intended

Don Knowles, a staff member of the Senate Interior subcommittee, said the budget language is not intended as criticism of park service purchase priorities. The conferees just decided "it would be an appropriate thing this year to encourage the park service to address hardships," Knowles said.

Dan Kuehn, superintendent of the Santa Monicas park, said, "I certainly can't complain about $6 million. In this day and age, with more than half (of what the House proposed), I'm just elated."

Kuehn said the hardship directive probably sold the appropriation to those congressional negotiators who opposed any "money for land acquisition at all, with the deficits the way they are."

Many Sales of Small Size

He denied that small landowners have been overlooked, pointing out that more than $1.6 million of last year's $8-million appropriation went for hardship purchases. He said that, of the 144 tracts purchased during the park's eight-year existence, more than two-thirds were smaller than 40 acres.

However, he said, giving top priority to those cases this year could hinder efforts to acquire the 272-acre Quaker Corp. property in the Las Virgenes Valley in Calabasas, envisioned as part of a visitor center with picnicking and camping.

The national recreation area reserved $3.5 million from last year's appropriation to apply toward purchase of the Quaker property, which is now being appraised. Some park service officials say privately that the cost could be considerably higher than $3.5 million.

May Ask for More

Kuehn said that if the added $1.8 million still does not cover the cost, park service officials probably will ask Congress for permission to divert some of the hardship funds.

The Quaker Corp. has received state Coastal Commission approval for a housing subdivision on the tract. If it is not acquired during the coming year, "I think we'll lose it" to development, Kuehn said.

The spending measure also prohibits use of the $6 million for buying land from the state. That restriction means the park service cannot use any of the money to reimburse the state for $3 million used in 1985 to buy a tract of about 800 acres in Zuma Canyon.

Three Years to Repay

Under an agreement with the state, the park service is to repay the $3 million within three years of the purchase, or the rugged mountain land will be put up for sale to private developers.

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