Buying Fryman Canyon in Studio City at the current price would be by far the costliest purchase ever made by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, giving the state parks agency and its conservationist allies a splitting financial headache.
Conservancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston warned recently that it would be a long time before the conservancy could buy more parkland in the city of Los Angeles if Fryman Canyon soaks up $10.9 million. That is the price called for under a proposal by Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilman Michael Woo, who represents the area, to buy the canyon from developer Fred Sahadi.
In early November, the conservancy board of directors and then the Los Angeles City Council are expected to vote on the Bradley-Woo plan to add Fryman Canyon to the conservancy's mountain park system.
Sahadi's plans to build 26 luxury homes on the steep-sloped, wooded site set off weeks of campaigning by annoyed neighbors and environmentalists, who pushed the idea of buying the canyon for parkland to block development.
But at $10.9 million, the 31-acre Fryman property would cost more than $350,000 per acre.
Of this amount, $8.7 million would be paid by the conservancy under the Bradley-Woo plan, thus making the conservancy's per-acre cost $280,000--more than five times the conservancy's most expensive previous purchase of raw land.
The conservancy's most expensive acquisition to date has been the Holland-Avaness property, 22 acres in the Santa Clarita Woodlands area acquired in July for $5.1 million, or $231,818 per acre, according to a conservancy list of its 10 most recent purchases.
But the Holland-Avaness property, named after its former owners, was costly for unusual reasons. Located west of the Golden State Freeway at the foot of Rice and East canyons, the land offered a strategic position to block access to Towsley Canyon, which is being considered by Los Angeles County as a potential site for a landfill. The conservancy opposes the landfill.
And the site has a motel and stable on it and is commercially zoned, Edmiston said, unlike the vacant land in Fryman Canyon.
The most expensive undeveloped, residentially zoned property ever bought by the conservancy was a 37-acre Cherry Canyon parcel in La Canada Flintridge that went for $1.75 million, according to the conservancy list. That works out to $47,200 per acre--less than one-fifth the per-acre cost considered for Fryman.
(Although Sahadi's entire Fryman property is 63 acres, 32 acres are already pledged to be donated to the conservancy, so the purchase price applies only to the remaining 31 acres.)
Edmiston is not the only one fretting about the price tag on the deal proposed by Bradley and Woo.
Regrets, concerns and recriminations over the cost of the proposed deal can also be heard from other quarters, from San Fernando Valley environmental activist David Brown to West Side Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and advocates of a plan to upgrade parkland in the Pacific Palisades.
The doubts boil down to two questions:
* Is Fryman Canyon worth what the Bradley-Woo proposal offers?
* What other parkland purchases must be sacrificed or postponed to pay for Fryman's huge costs?
The conservancy and council may resolve these questions soon.
When they formally consider the Bradley-Woo plan in early November, conservancy officials expect to have a new appraisal of the Fryman property and an opinion from the state attorney general.
Meanwhile, the council is scheduled to decide in early November whether to approve spending $1.96 million of Runyon Canyon trust fund money for the buyout. The Bradley-Woo plan relied on such a contribution to bring the total payment to $10.9 million. The package also envisioned private parties making $250,000 in charitable contributions and $8.7 million from the conservancy.
But the last-minute misgivings and nervousness expressed by some have irritated the mayor's office and prompted Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani to speculate that perhaps Edmiston is seeking to torpedo purchase of the canyon.
"For some reason Joe Edmiston and the conservancy have cooled to the idea of buying Fryman Canyon," Fabiani said in an interview last week. "We feel we reached a fair resolution of the price, and if Edmiston and the conservancy are changing their minds about it, they should step forward and say so instead of engaging in behind-the-scenes maneuvers to scuttle the project."
Edmiston denies he's trying to scuttle the purchase. But he does point out a dilemma posed by such high-priced venture.
"Are we going to dump all our city of Los Angeles projects in one basket?" Edmiston asked. "No one should be surprised" if the conservancy, as it tries to serve its other geographic constituencies, says "we're going to have to take away from other projects planned for the city of Los Angeles because you got Fryman," Edmiston argued.
"It's not irrational to say: What about Ventura County and its needs?"