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Coastal Panel Weighs Offer of Parkland : * Development: A possible quid pro quo. In return for donating 80 acres, a builder reportedly wants the state to settle a dispute that has held up construction at another site.

February 23, 1992|RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MALIBU — A developer has offered to buy 80 acres in Malibu's Escondido Canyon and give it to the state as parkland to help settle a dispute over one of the worst violations of the state's coastal protection law.

Sources say developer Sheldon Gordon made the offer last week, just hours before the California Coastal Commission had been expected to revoke his development permit to build four houses in Malibu's exclusive Sweetwater Mesa area.

Commission officials hastily postponed the matter for a month, saying they wanted to consider the offer.

"They've come up with what I consider to be a potentially viable offer," state Deputy Atty. General Jamee Patterson said. "It's not firm, and it needs a lot of work, but it's a lot closer to what the commission has been discussing (as a possible settlement)."

Sources say the proposal calls for Gordon to buy 114 acres in the heart of Escondido Canyon. He would donate the 80 acres to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy as parkland and keep 34 acres for possible future development.

As part of the deal, these sources say, Gordon has agreed to a deed restriction that would prohibit the 34 acres from being subdivided, which presumably means that the property could be used only as a site for a single residential estate.

In exchange, the state would drop its demand that Gordon pay $1 million in civil penalties for illegal grading on his 184-acre Sweetwater Mesa property in 1989, and the developer would be allowed to proceed with scaled-down plans to develop the four houses there.

The commission revoked his development permit in 1990, accusing Gordon of grading 560,000 cubic yards of earth on the property--more than 14 times the amount the permit allowed.

But a judge later declared the revocation invalid, saying the commission had violated its own procedures, and ordered that the state panel reconsider the matter.

Gordon, who owns the Ma Maison Sofitel Hotel in West Los Angeles, has filed a lawsuit against the commission in an effort to pursue his plans, contending that the panel has unlawfully violated his property rights.

The two sides have negotiated for more than a year to settle the lawsuits and determine the future of the Sweetwater Mesa property, but, until now, they have been far from a settlement.

Sources familiar with the situation say the fact that the hearings had been scheduled at all signaled the commission's growing impatience with Gordon, and that, except for the offer, it would have almost certainly gone ahead and revoked the permit.

Escondido Canyon, in western Malibu, is among the last remaining pristine coastal canyons in Southern California. Its main attraction, Escondido Falls, is widely regarded as the most spectacular waterfall in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The canyon has long been on the wish lists of local environmentalists and parks officials for acquisition as parkland.

The conservancy acquired a small part of the canyon two years ago, but it remains almost entirely in the hands of a few private landowners, most of whom have expressed a willingness to sell for the right price.

The 114 acres Gordon wants to acquire are currently owned by Fairfax Savings & Loan of Fairfax, Va. A task force appointed by the Malibu City Council reported last month that the firm wanted to sell the property for $3 million. The Murphy Family Trust, which owns 35 acres next to the Fairfax property, including most of the land immediately surrounding the falls, has said it would consider selling its property for $1.3 million.

In an interview, Gordon said he began negotiating to buy the 114 acres several weeks ago, but declined to discuss the price.

He described the offer as "a global move to settle all the issues" between the two sides "so that we can put this long ordeal behind us."

"As someone who has lived in Malibu for nearly 19 years, I felt it was better to give that piece of land (as parkland) rather than simply hand the state a check for a million dollars and have them spend it somewhere else," he said.

However, those familiar with the proposal say that, while it holds promise, it is too early to predict whether the offer will be accepted.

A key issue is the future of the 34 acres, and whether the commission--not to mention the conservancy and the city of Malibu--will regard acquisition of the 80 acres as sufficient reward for possibly allowing new development, however limited, in another part of the canyon.

Before submitting his latest offer on the eve of the hearing, Gordon had been pushing a plan that would have allowed him or someone else to subdivide the 34 acres.

Gordon and Malibu land-use attorney Paul Shoop, who represents Fairfax, approached Mayor Larry Wan early last week about such a proposal.

"They were looking for some signal of support," the mayor said, "and I basically explained that, in my judgment, anything that would involve new development in Escondido Canyon would probably not be a viable option."

Others, who asked not to be identified, said that Gordon had expressed an interest in having the conservancy acquire the entire 114 acres and subdivide it as a way for him or some other developer to avoid having to win approval for the subdivision from Malibu's slow-growth-oriented City Council.

The 34 acres is within the city. By law, the conservancy, as a state agency, would not need the approval of Malibu to subdivide the property, although it would still need the Coastal Commission's OK.

The conservancy, however, expressed no enthusiasm for such an arrangement.

In an interview, Joseph T. Edmiston, the conservancy's executive director, said the agency probably would not become involved in any plan that resulted in part of the canyon being developed.

"I have no trouble with stiff fines (for Coastal Act violations)," he said. "Forcing him to buy all of Escondido Canyon would be a good stiff fine."

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