A parks acquisition agency has expressed interest in buying about 270 acres owned by entertainer Bob Hope in Malibu's Corral Canyon, where a developer wants to grade more than 6 million cubic yards of earth to build 48 luxury homes.
Although talks between the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Potomac Investment Associates, which has an option to develop the land, were described by both parties as preliminary, a conservancy spokeswoman said last week that an accord may be within reach.
"We feel optimistic about the chances of acquiring the land," said Julie Zeidner, the spokeswoman.
Zeidner said the conservancy had expressed interest in buying the property--which represents 80% of the 339 acres Hope owns in the canyon--for about $9 million. The money would be paid over five years, with the funds coming from Proposition 117, which was approved by voters in June to protect natural wildlife habitats, she said.
Corral Canyon is among the few remaining largely undeveloped coastal canyons in the Malibu area with a year-round stream.
The agency's efforts to acquire the property come as Potomac prepares to go before the California Coastal Commission in San Diego on Thursday for permission to go ahead with its controversial plan to develop the canyon.
Under the development plan, Potomac wants to build the homes on about half of the 339 acres. Hope has agreed to donate 170 acres of the property to the conservancy for acquisition by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, should the coastal panel approve the development and if he were to win approval to develop his Jordan Ranch property in Ventura County.
Environmentalists are bitterly opposed to the plans for Corral Canyon, as well as a proposal by another developer to grade 3.8 million cubic yards of earth and build 69 homes in Malibu's Encinal Canyon, which the commission is also due to consider on Thursday.
"As these projects go, so goes the future of Malibu," said Sara Wan, vice president of the Malibu Township Council, which favors slow growth. "If either of them are approved, you can kiss the Santa Monica Mountains goodby, as far as being a public recreation resource along the coast."
The Coastal Commission staff has recommended that both projects be rejected.
In recommending against the Corral Canyon project, the staff said that the more than 6 million cubic yards Potomac wants to grade is by far the largest amount of grading ever proposed in the Malibu coastal zone.
Sources familiar with the conservancy's efforts to preserve as much of Corral Canyon as possible have suggested that, faced with such opposition, Hope and Potomac may be amenable to selling much of the land and trying to obtain approval of a scaled-down project on the remaining portion.
However, a Potomac official last week dismissed that idea.
"We have every intention of going forward with the current proposal before the Coastal Commission, and we have every hope and expectation that it will be approved," said Fred Maas, Potomac's vice president.
Maas acknowledged that the firm had talked with the conservancy about the possibility of acquiring most of the property, but declined to comment on details.
"We've talked, and we intend to continue to talk, but I would call it very preliminary," he said. Maas said that neither Hope nor his representatives had participated in the discussions, adding: "Based on what has been discussed thus far, I'm not even sure whether it would get to the point where we would take it to them."
A previous developer, Sun Pacific Properties, had received approval from Los Angeles County supervisors last year to develop the entire 339 acres as a private resort and residential area. Its plans included an 18-hole golf course, a 52,000-square-foot clubhouse, 60 homes, six tennis courts, two restaurants and a swimming pool.
However, the proposal quickly encountered problems.
In February, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp asked a judge to overturn the approval on grounds that county planners and the supervisors failed to adequately analyze its environmental effects. A lawsuit by the Sierra Club and the Corral Canyon Homeowners Assn., and another lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, made similar requests.
Since then, the property has become involved in a complicated land swap aimed at allowing Hope to develop his Jordan Ranch property in Ventura County.
In April, Hope conditionally withdrew the Corral Canyon plan and turned over to the conservancy the 170 acres of the property on which the golf course was to have been built as part of an exchange to allow him to develop the 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch.
However, if the exchange does not go through, Hope retains the right to take back his Corral Canyon land, as well as other property he owns in the Santa Susana Mountains, between Malibu and Simi Valley.
Zeidner, of the conservancy, expressed hope that, if the agency is able to acquire much of the property, it will not affect other aspects of the land swap arrangement.