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ELECTIONS / PARKLAND ACQUISITION : Conservancy Has Big Stake in Proposition B : Environmental: If it passes, the mountain land advocates will reap $76.5 million. Opponents call it 'park barrel' politics.

November 01, 1990|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a ballot title long enough to take a voter's breath away: The Safer Neighborhood Parks, Tree-Planting, Gang Prevention, Senior Recreation, Beaches and Wildlife Bond Act.

But not mentioned in the protracted description of Proposition B on Tuesday's election ballot is one of its biggest backers and prime beneficiaries--the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

An arm of the Malibu-based conservancy conceived the measure and the state agency, which purchases and preserves mountain open space, stands to reap $76.5 million if Proposition B is approved by two-thirds of the county's voters. The conservancy would also be eligible for another $55 million in competitive grants to create trails, plant trees and to preserve natural woodlands.

Conservancy Director Joseph Edmiston said the measure is critical to the agency, which has not been able to secure enough funding from the state Legislature or statewide bond measures. Proposition B would pay about three-fourths of the cost of acquiring up to 20,000 acres that would be preserved as open space within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Edmiston said.

"If we are going to do it," Edmiston said, "Los Angelenos are going to have to do it for themselves. Perhaps Prop. B is the first step toward that type of (open) lands ethic in Southern California."

But Proposition B would do much more.

Critics say it is a cash vehicle for the conservancy, with other projects thrown in as a sop to the voters. The detractors, led by County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, say the measure is too expensive and unnecessarily raises property taxes. They derisively call it "park barrel" politics.

The measure would raise $817 million countywide by selling bonds that would be repaid over 20 years with higher property taxes.

It would raise money to refurbish the Hollywood Bowl, the Griffith Observatory, the County Museum of Art and the County Museum of Natural History. It would also set aside money for restoring trout habitats, building trails, improving beach facilities, removing graffiti and building mountain camps for troubled youths.

The measure would distribute another $140 million to the county's 86 cities and unincorporated areas, based on their population, for park and recreation projects. Santa Monica, for example, would receive nearly $1.6 million, Culver City $662,000, West Hollywood $621,000 and Beverly Hills $555,000.

The city of Los Angeles, with a population of 3.4 million, would get more than $55 million.

Property owners would pay for the improvements. The bond repayment would add about $20 a year--or $404 over 20 years--to the tax bill of a home assessed at $250,000, county officials said.

Proposition B's opponents have criticized the conservancy's part in bringing the measure to the ballot. The "No on B" ballot argument calls the proposition's supporters "a group of self-serving individuals whose primary interest is to get the public to buy private land in the Santa Monica Mountains. They enticed others to support this bond measure by promising financing for their pet projects."

Edmiston and Esther Feldman, who conceived the measure and now heads the "Yes on Prop. B" campaign, conceded that the measure was designed in part to help the conservancy.

But Feldman said she planned from the beginning to write a proposition that also would provide benefits all over the county. She conducted an extensive survey of cities and other agencies in an attempt to provide funding for a variety of the county's most pressing park, recreation and cultural programs, Feldman said.

"It was always my concept and idea to provide for all (of the county's) open-space needs and parks," Feldman said.

Proposition B was born about a year and a half ago when the conservancy and two Ventura County park districts, collectively known as the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, set aside about $100,000 in an attempt to find a stable source of funding, Edmiston said.

The money was used to hire two staff people, including Feldman, who had helped to organize a successful 1988 statewide bond measure for parks.

The conservancy initially considered a small sales tax increase to fund park programs, but decided it did not want to compete with two other county measures on Tuesday's ballot that would increase sales taxes for mass transportation and jail construction, he said.

So Feldman proposed asking the County Board of Supervisors to place the bond measure on the ballot. In July, the board agreed.

Conservancy officials insist their share of the spoils is badly needed.

The agency has spent about $70 million in the last decade to acquire 12,500 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains. But the conservancy hopes to add at least 20,000 acres of additional open space within the National Recreation Area, which stretches from Griffith Park to Point Mugu in Ventura County and from the Simi Hills to the coast.

Less than half of the 155,000-acre Recreation Area is currently owned by the public.

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