The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has boldly injected itself into negotiations over a proposed county landfill north of Sylmar in an effort to acquire three canyons in the Santa Monicas the agency wants preserved.
The conservancy has become involved by allying itself with a private firm to get control of land the county needs to develop the proposed Elsmere Canyon landfill. Control of that land would give the conservancy a bargaining chip that it will try to exchange for the three Santa Monica Mountain canyons--Sullivan, Rustic and Mission--which could otherwise be developed.
The gambit changes the dynamics of land-swap negotiations among Los Angeles County, the city of Los Angeles and other public agencies and private interests concerning the proposed Elsmere Canyon landfill, which officials see as a key to heading off an impending trash crisis.
The move represents a mutual aid pact between unusual allies: The conservancy, which is a state agency that buys parkland in and near the Santa Monica Mountains, and BKK Corp., a leading Southern California waste-disposal firm that now owns the Elsmere land at issue and wants to develop the landfill.
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.
"It allows us to go along and do our environmental studies and proceed with the permitting (of the landfill) without the county coming in and taking the project," BKK President Kenneth B. Kazarian said Thursday. "We decided to eliminate the hammer from our heads."
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, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Mike Gage said. A few private dumps, including one operated by BKK, have barred city trash.
Los Angeles city and county officials reacted with surprise and some outrage to the disclosure of the secret deal that could block a proposed public landfill until three canyons are made parkland.
In the strongest attack, Gage accused the conservancy's executive director, Joseph T. Edmiston, of "making a deal with the devil" by aligning with BKK. "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 agreement with the conservancy may elevate BKK's bargaining power. The county and independent County Sanitation Districts insist that the landfill must be publicly owned. BKK faces possible condemnation of the land if it can't agree with the county and city on a sale price, and the Torrance-based waste disposal firm has rejected an initial offer of more than $50 million.
But the land would essentially become condemnation-proof in the hands of the conservancy, because one public agency cannot condemn land held by another.
Under terms of the deal, BKK will transfer to the conservancy about 500 acres near the intersection of the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways, Kazarian said. Most of the land would provide access to Elsmere from a new freeway interchange.
The conservancy is seeking to acquire Rustic, Sullivan and Mission canyons, which are located south of Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains. It has long coveted these 2,300 acres, which are being held by the county and Sanitation Districts for possible future use as garbage dumps.
Edmiston said it was "clear that the conservancy felt that it had to take . . . steps to assure that Mission, Rustic and Sullivan canyons would be part of the mitigation package for the landfill in Elsmere Canyon."
The county and Sanitation Districts acquired Mission, Rustic and Sullivan in the '50s and '60s for use as landfills. The county dumped trash in Mission until 1965. Conservationists, affluent homeowners and the city of Los Angeles have expressed intense opposition to dumping in the canyons, but the Sanitation Districts still have refused to sell them to the conservancy.
Rustic and Sullivan, deep clefts on the eastern flank of Topanga State Park, are "the most pristine canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains, even though they are within the city of Los Angeles," Edmiston said.
But the conservancy has been unable to secure a promise from city and county negotiators that a complicated land-swap needed to establish the Elsmere dump will include transfer of Mission, Sullivan and Rustic to the conservancy, Edmiston said.
The proposed 190-million-ton landfill would be a major repository of the city's trash for the next several decades and is seen by city and county sanitation officials as a partial solution to an impending trash crisis stemming from dwindling landfill space. The county sanitation agency is also pursuing the Santa Monica Mountain canyons as one of five other potential dump sites.