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Panel Delays Action on Lobbying : Environment: The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy postpones decision on restricting its top executive in his talks with developers.

January 10, 1991|JACK CHEEVERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a lengthy debate, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has postponed action on a proposal to forbid its top executive to engage in unauthorized lobbying in favor of developers who agree to sell or give land for public parks.

By a 5-2 vote, conservancy board members Monday delayed a vote on restrictions aimed at Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston, who has drawn criticism from homeowners, environmentalists and other public officials recently for promoting developments in Malibu, Calabasas and Ventura County.

Board members agreed to reconsider the matter at a meeting Jan. 22. If the guidelines are approved, Edmiston would be required to obtain formal approval from the conservancy's board before publicly promoting a development project in exchange for a gift or sale of parklands.

The conservancy is a state agency that buys land for parks in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Some board members were upset when Edmiston testified before the state Coastal Commission last month in favor of a 26-home luxury development in Malibu's Corral Canyon. In turn, the project's developer, Potomac Investment Associates, promised to sell 320 acres in the canyon to the conservancy for about $9 million.

The Coastal Commission rejected the Corral project, however, saying it would damage an environmentally senstive plant and wildlife habitat. During the hearing, one coastal commissioner rebuked Edmiston, saying: "To get this far in bed with a developer like this makes me sick."

The Corral deal was a key part of a complex land-swap proposal involving entertainer Bob Hope, who owns the Malibu acreage. Under the terms of the exchange, which Edmiston strongly supports, Hope would sell and donate to park agencies 5,700 acres in and near the Santa Monica Mountains for 59 acres of federally owned parkland near Agoura Hills.

The 59 acres, located in the Cheeseboro Canyon section of the Santa Monica National Recreation Area, would allow construction of a road to Hope's 2,300-acre Jordan Ranch in Ventura County, where Potomac wants to build 750 luxury residences and a golf course.

Edmiston has promoted the Hope swap, which he helped to engineer, as a relatively low-cost method of adding a huge chunk of land to the state park system. In addition to the federal acreage, Hope wants $10 million.

The Coastal Commission veto of the Corral Canyon project placed the entire Jordan swap in jeopardy, although backers--including Edmiston--have said they will try to restructure it.

Some conservancy board members complained this week that an environmental consultant hired by the agency without their approval told the Coastal Commission the Potomac project would cause only minimal ecological damage.

Conservancy Chairwoman Carole B. Stevens said that after the project was vetoed by the Coastal Commission, Edmiston was quoted in several newspapers as saying the conservancy's top acquisition target was now Blind Canyon, in the Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth.

But the board had not approved that position, either, she said.

However, David Green, a member of the conservancy's advisory board, said he opposed any action that would prevent Edmiston--whom admirers regard as a brilliant land-buying strategist--from moving quickly to conclude deals when opportunity arises.

Green said the conservancy's success in acquiring land is due in large part to its ability "to step in and make a quick deal." Since 1980, the agency has been involved in financing the purchase of nearly 11,000 acres--more than twice as much as the state Department of Parks and Recreation acquired in the same period.

If occasional communications problems between Edmiston and the board are "the price we have to pay for the ability to move quickly and decisively, it's a price I'll pay any day," he said.

Board members agreed to appoint a subcommittee at their next meeting to study the proposed restrictions. A final vote is not expected until at least late February.

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