WASHINGTON — The chairman of a key House subcommittee agreed Thursday to postpone a decision on whether to block a controversial land exchange involving federal parkland in Cheeseboro Canyon and property owned by entertainer Bob Hope.
"All right, we'll be glad to wait," said Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), chairman of the interior subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, in response to a request by Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles).
Beilenson, who has been lobbied heavily by both sides in the controversy, told the panel he had mixed feelings about the proposed exchange of 59 acres owned by the National Park Service in Cheeseboro Canyon for 1,100 acres of the adjacent Jordan Ranch in eastern Ventura County.
Beilenson said later that before taking a position he wanted to see the Park Service's environmental impact statement and a separate environmental impact review that Ventura County is expected to produce next month.
Potomac Investment Associates, which has obtained an option to purchase the Jordan property from Hope, wants to build a golf course and 750 homes on the ranch but needs the Cheeseboro parcel for an access road. Both properties are located within the boundaries of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Faced with intense public criticism about his vast holdings within the recreation area, Hope sweetened the deal last month by agreeing to transfer about 5,700 acres he owns in the Santa Susana and Santa Monica mountains to park agencies for a below-market $20 million if the Cheeseboro-Jordan Ranch swap is approved. His proposal was praised by some conservationists but did not appease critics who maintain that the Park Service should not promote development.
The subcommittee, which oversees funding for national parks, has been flooded with letters and phone calls from both sides in the Jordan Ranch controversy, Yates said. Foes have asked Yates to include language in the Interior Department's appropriations bill for 1991 that would prohibit the Park Service from using any federal funds to proceed with the exchange for one year.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) announced last week that he would urge the interior subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee to insert such a provision in next year's Interior appropriations bill. He became the first elected official to oppose the proposal.
Beilenson appeared before Yates' subcommittee to ask for $33 million to buy parkland in the mountains as well as $3 million to fund elephant protection in Africa under a 1988 elephant conservation bill he authored.
But before he had a chance to discuss either subject, Yates asked, "What do you want us to do about Jordan Ranch?"
Neither the ranch nor Cheeseboro Canyon are in Beilenson's 23rd District, which extends from the West Valley over the Santa Monicas to the Westside. But he wrote the 1978 bill that created the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and is the leading congressional advocate of preserving significant stretches of the mountains as parkland.
"It's far from clear what the course should be," Beilenson replied after stating his ambivalence about the proposed exchange. "On the one hand, one worries about a park making available even a modest amount of acreage, as would be the case in this particular instance, which would allow development.
"But on the other hand, the park, in return, would get some wonderful acreage, and it's been getting better slowly and that's one reason I would like to wait a little bit."
Moreover, Beilenson said: "There's going to be development in Jordan Ranch no matter what. The question is, in a sense, whether the park can and/or should get something in return."
In response to a question by Yates about the possibility of purchasing the entire 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch as parkland--a position advocated by land-swap opponents--Beilenson said, "It's too expensive." He estimated the ranch's value at $20 million to $50 million.
Opponents of the swap maintain that without the exchange and the access road through Cheeseboro Canyon, Jordan Ranch would be valued at less than $20 million. They also point out that current zoning permits the construction of no more than 14 homes on its land.
"We're disappointed in his position," Donald J. Hellmann, an attorney for the Wilderness Society and a leading opponent of the swap, said following Beilenson's testimony.
Yates' subcommittee is expected to begin deliberations on the Interior appropriations bill next month. Hellmann had asked Yates during a March 7 hearing to prohibit the park service from proceeding with the exchange in the funding bill.