A long-awaited federal report released this week says that the proposed exchange of national parkland in Agoura for adjacent lands owned by entertainer Bob Hope would cause "direct unavoidable adverse . . . impacts" to the 59 acres of parkland, but preserve a much bigger swath of private land for public recreational use.
The draft environmental impact statement by the National Park Service neither endorses nor opposes the land swap, which would provide road access to the sprawling housing and golf course project planned for Hope's Jordan Ranch property in eastern Ventura County.
Park Service officials, criticized in the past for supporting the exchange before performing environmental reviews, have been officially neutral in recent months. David Gackenbach, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a unit of the Park Service, said Monday that the agency will take a position on the exchange in the final environmental statement, to be issued next year after a 90-day public comment period.
But Gackenbach acknowledged that a federal decision could well be rendered moot by political developments in Ventura County, which has authority over the Jordan Ranch proposal.
Three county supervisors and a supervisor-elect are on record against the plan for 750 homes and a championship golf course on Jordan Ranch, which Potomac Investment Associates has optioned from Hope. The project is expected to come before the supervisors for a vote sometime next year.
If they insist on a much smaller development, the developers may not need the access road and may withdraw their offer of the exchange.
Fearing the worst from Ventura County, Hope has been trying to persuade the city of Simi Valley to annex the Jordan Ranch.
In preparation for a year and a half, the environmental report only focuses on the exchange of 59 acres of Park Service land in Cheeseboro Canyon for 864 acres of Palo Comado Canyon, which is part of the 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch.
In fact, as the document noted, Hope earlier this year significantly sweetened the offer in an attempt to win over critics of the Jordan Ranch proposal.
As it now stands, Hope's offer includes the donation of another 325 acres on and near the Jordan Ranch to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state parks agency. He has also agreed to down-size the access road from four lanes to two and tunnel through some hillsides rather than flatten them. The access road would slice the edge off the 2,150-acre Cheeseboro Canyon unit of the national recreation area.
Hope also agreed to transfer to the conservancy the 4,369-acre Runkle Ranch in the Santa Susana Mountains for a below-market $10 million, and to donate about 170 acres of his Corral Canyon property in Malibu.
All of these inducements are contingent on approval of the land exchange.
Opponents of the exchange, including some environmentalists and Agoura-area homeowner groups, have criticized the Park Service for even considering altering park boundaries to accommodate private development. They argue that the Park Service would be triggering development of a property--the Jordan Ranch--that existing park service plans indicate should be acquired for public land.
Supporters of the deal, including some environmentalists and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, say it would provide a windfall of public lands that could never be assembled with tax dollars because of exorbitant costs.
Gackenbach said the Park Service will probably hold a public meeting on the report between now and Jan. 31, the deadline for submission of comments.
The draft report said that if the land exchange takes place and the access road is built, the oak-dotted, 59-acre tract would no longer be available for public recreation. The road would be visible from some areas of the Cheeseboro Canyon preserve.
The Park Service could insist on deed restrictions barring development of the 59 acres beyond the two-lane road, but the property would still be degraded, the report said.
On the other hand, the document said, the deal offers "possible benefits" to the "Park Service and other public agencies," in that development of a much larger area would be foreclosed.
The report analyzed several road access alternatives for the Jordan Ranch project should the Park Service kill the exchange. Each of the alternative roads would go through the city of Agoura Hills or unincorporated Oak Park, and face strong political resistance or difficult terrain, the report said.