Los Angeles city and county officials reacted with surprise and some outrage Friday to disclosure of a secret deal between the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and a waste disposal firm that could block a proposed public landfill until three canyons are made parkland.
In the strongest attack, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Mike Gage accused the conservancy's executive director, Joseph T. Edmiston, of "making a deal with the devil" by aligning with BKK Corp., the waste disposal company.
"We've been trying to protect the conservancy's interest, only to have them go behind our back and potentially cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars," Gage said.
The Times reported Friday that the conservancy had reached an agreement with BKK to accept a donation from the firm of at least 500 acres near the proposed Elsmere Canyon landfill--land that the county would use primarily for a road to the site.
The county, insisting that the dump be publicly owned, has threatened to condemn BKK's holdings. But transferring the land to the conservancy would make it condemnation-proof because one public agency cannot take the land of another. The deal could become official by late next week.
County Supervisor Deane Dana complained Friday that the conservancy had been deceitful. "I thought we had some kind of agreement to communicate and I have found out" that Edmiston "had another direction," he said.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes Elsmere Canyon, gasped in surprise when he learned of the development Thursday night, according to an aide.
But Antonovich could not be reached Friday, merely describing the deal through an aide as "an adroit move by BKK in protecting their property from eminent domain."
Edmiston defended his actions Friday, saying he felt that environmental interests were not being adequately taken into consideration during land-swap talks.
The conservancy has been unable to secure a promise from city and county negotiators that the complicated land-swap needed to establish the Elsmere dump will include transfer of Mission, Sullivan and Rustic canyons to the conservancy, Edmiston said.
The conservancy wants to use the Elsmere Canyon land as leverage to ensure preservation of the three canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains. They are owned by the county and the County Sanitation Districts for potential use as landfills.
Edmiston said an element of the land swap that could have allowed 500 houses to be built in Mission Canyon neglected to take the conservancy's goals into consideration.
He became frustrated, he said, and the BKK agreement "came out of what everyone was telling us was the done deal, which involved either lack of permanent protection for Rustic and Sullivan or the conservancy rolling over on Mission Canyon."
Richard Dixon, county administrative officer, said he could not understand why the conservancy felt left out. "Any version of the deal I've seen meant that with relatively little effort on their part and relatively little money, they came out a big winner" with Sullivan and Rustic canyons.
Environmentalists and residents near the three canyons applauded the conservancy's move Friday. Nita Rosenfeld, head of the neighboring Mandeville Canyon Assn.'s government committee, called Edmiston a "sly dog."
Patricia Schifferle, regional director for California-Nevada Wilderness Society, said she believes that swapping Elsmere for the other three canyons "is a fair trade."
All of the properties are part of a proposed massive land exchange begun in February in legislation introduced by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City). Berman declined comment Friday.
The pact is intended to win the three canyons for the conservancy while protecting BKK's interest in owning and operating the dump in lieu of the County Sanitation Districts. The landfill could bring the company millions--or even billions--of dollars in dumping fees over the 30- to 50-year life of the landfill.
The city has pushed for the dump to be publicly owned and operated, in part to guarantee that city trash trucks will be able to dump there, Gage said. A few private dumps, including one operated by BKK, have barred city trash.
But some city and county authorities indicated Friday that the conservancy's scheme to become a bigger player in the land swap may backfire because although the BKK land is desirable, it is not essential to the dump's success.
Ron Deaton, the city's assistant chief legislative analyst, said the BKK land is needed primarily for access to the site from the Antelope Valley Freeway. But Deaton said a more circuitous access route could be crafted through adjacent Whitney Canyon.
Any deal involving Whitney Canyon automatically triggers negotiations with developer Ray Watt, who controls that land and wants to swap it to the county for land in Mission Canyon, where he wants to build 500 houses.