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Congress Curbs Park Service : Chicago Clout Reaches to Santa Monica Mountains

January 21, 1988|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

A decision that germinated in the Democratic wards of Chicago and flowered in Washington will place potentially severe restrictions on National Park Service efforts to add to its property in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Accusing the Park Service of a "policy and practice of harassment of landowners" in the Santa Monica Mountains, Congress has placed new limits on the service's authority to condemn land there. The harsh criticism came in a report accompanying a budget bill.

The funding legislation contained $1 million--much less than anticipated--for buying land this year in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, a 10-year-old effort to build a network of public open space in the hills from Griffith Park to Point Mugu.

The action came after the owner of 10 acres overlooking two pristine canyons in western Malibu enlisted various powerful Chicago political figures, with whom he has close ties, in his fight against condemnation by the Park Service.

The key architect of the report and the park allocation, Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), acknowledged in an interview that the harassment accusations and condemnation limits grew out of his anger over Park Service efforts to force George Murphy Dunne Jr. to sell his ridge-top lot. Dunne wants to build a 2,100-square-foot house on the land.

An actor and musician, Dunne is the son of George Dunne, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners (Chicago's equivalent of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors) and Cook County Democratic chairman.

"I will tell you he's a friend of mine and his father . . . is a friend of mine," Yates said. "I've known him for many years."

Yates represents a Chicago lake front district. He also chairs the House Interior appropriations subcommittee, which drafts the House budget for the National Park Service.

But Yates said the small allocation was unrelated to the Park Service's handling of the Dunne case. He said the recreation area is one of many victims of the massive federal deficit.

Called a 'Disaster'

The new restrictions on condemnation "are a disaster," said Daniel R. Kuehn, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

In a memo to his supervisor, Kuehn wrote that "a signal has been sent that landowners may seek special political action to prevent (Park Service) acquisition."

Dunne's 10 acres, several miles inland from the Malibu beachfront, commands a sweeping view from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Channel Islands.

Below the cliff edge where Dunne hopes to build his house, the sheer walls of Zuma Canyon and the rounded folds of Trancas Canyon stretch to the sea. Already, the Park Service and the state own about 5,000 acres in the canyons. The service hopes to buy about 2,000 more.

Dunne's property, Kuehn said, would be an ideal spot for hikers who have traveled the canyons to rest, picnic and enjoy the spectacular vistas.

Seen as a 'Raw Deal'

"I can understand why Dan Kuehn would want it," Dunne said of his land. "But . . . I think I was getting a raw deal."

Former Dunne attorney Michael Woodward said a Park Service official told him in the late 1970s that the government was not interested in Dunne's land. Kuehn, who was not in the Santa Monicas at the time, said he understands the response was based simply on a lack of money.

Dunne spent more than five years seeking county and coastal permits, which he received in 1984. He said he asked Yates at the time to lobby for his coastal permit, but the congressman told him it was a state matter that he could not influence.

The Park Service did not offer an opinion about Dunne's coastal application when it was before the commission. The application escaped the staff's notice, according to Park Service memos.

After the permit was granted, the Park Service moved to condemn the land because construction was then possible, setting aside a $250,000 payment for Dunne. But because Dunne had not started building, the condemnation effort was stalled. Dunne said he thought his problems were over.

To keep his building permits from expiring, Dunne put up two retaining walls on the property in August.

The construction prompted Kuehn to revive the condemnation process. In early December, he got permission from National Park Service Director William Penn Mott Jr. to proceed with condemnation--the first in the Santa Monicas.

Dunne turned for help to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, another Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). Simon is currently a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.

Dunne said his father made no effort on his behalf. "He didn't need to," Dunne said. "I know them. I can call them. I met Dan Rostenkowski when I was in fourth grade. I was at my father's coattails. I was a precinct captain for a while in Chicago."

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