At the same time, Potomac's Kyros asked park service Director James M. Ridenour in a Feb. 11 letter for a meeting to "begin negotiations aimed at preparing a final land exchange agreement between the Service and Potomac." Kyros, a onetime aide to former Vice President Walter Mondale and the son of an ex-congressman, noted that the proposal had been pending for nearly three years and that the public comment period on the draft environmental study had just closed.
James H. Lake, a former official in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George Bush whose Washington public relations firm was retained by Potomac, arranged the first meeting between the developer and senior National Park Service and Interior Department officials. Lake said he contacted John Schrote, assistant Interior secretary for policy, budget and administration, to set up the Feb. 25 session in Schrote's office. Lake said he knew Schrote and "had had previous conversations with him about this project."
Potomac lawyer Eliot R. Cutler, who was a top official in the Carter Administration, said Potomac was chafing at "the glacially slow pace of the process." Even if all went as hoped--with Ventura County approving the Jordan Ranch project and the park service approving the land swap--Potomac feared that negotiating the actual land exchange agreement would consume additional months.
"In this business, time is money," Cutler said in an interview. "There was a whole lot of work that we could do internally" while waiting for reviews to be completed. "It made sense . . . to get as many things resolved and in process as soon as we could."
At least two more meetings were held in May--one in Washington and the other in Agoura Hills.
A park service official involved in the talks said that, while it would have been improper to reach a final decision while a proposal was under environmental review, "there's nothing improper about meeting with a project proponent . . .
"In our interactions with them, we always made clear that we could not do anything until" the environmental review process was complete, the official said. "We made it clear to them that we weren't negotiating, and indeed it would have been improper for us to negotiate."
Cutler attributed the park service's insistence that the meetings were not negotiating sessions to "bureaucratic squeamishness"--adding that federal law would not bar discussing how a potential agreement might look.
That explanation doesn't satisfy opponents of the deal. "All along, the park service had made up their mind that they were going to go ahead with this exchange," said Donald J. Hellmann, an attorney with the Wilderness Society in Washington. "Their official claim of neutrality was . . . not an honest assessment of the real situation."
Shortly after the May meetings, Potomac began discussions with Ahmanson that led to abandonment of the proposed land exchange.