Park agencies in the Santa Monica Mountains once were bystanders in the development wars. They bought land when they had money. Otherwise, they watched from the sidelines as housing tracts chewed up ridgelines and valleys, leaving little open space.
What the public got in return for project approvals was "goat country"--the nearly vertical lands developers were glad to be rid of.
Convinced that land-use regulators weren't looking out for the needs of parks, park officials recently began fending for themselves.
The new activism first surfaced with the still-pending mega-deal that proposes to trade development rights for thousands of acres of parkland, including the vast holdings of comedian Bob Hope in the Santa Monicas, Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains.
Now such deals are becoming more common as two park agencies--the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the National Park Service--emerge as key players in the development game. In several recent cases, the two agencies negotiated directly with developers to obtain key park or habitat areas. Then, in exchange for the donation of these lands, park officials agreed to remain neutral or even support building projects in environmentally sensitive areas.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 30, 1992 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
"Not" omitted--The omission of the word "not" from a July 6 story led to an erroneous statement about the stated motives of David Gackenbach, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, in a disputed action. The article was about deals between developers and park agencies. It quoted Gackenbach as saying that in one instance he had tried to help Micor Ventures Inc., a development firm, when in fact he said he had not.
For the agencies, the attraction is free parkland, and a chance to moderate a project's worst effects. For developers, the goal is to have conservationists riding shotgun as they travel through the regulatory process.
In effect, developers are being told: "Here is the open space hoop that you need to jump through," said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. "If you can't make it, we're your enemy."
But the tactic has divided conservationists, with some questioning whether park agencies should lend their support and prestige to projects that degrade the mountains. These critics say park officials should use their expertise to objectively review development proposals, a role they cannot perform when they become developers' allies.
Others see nothing wrong with horse trading, but say park officials do not drive a hard enough bargain and abet the destruction of pristine lands in their pursuit of more acreage. And some claim the strategy ultimately could weaken, not strengthen, land-use regulation.
"When a park agency puts its Good Housekeeping seal of approval on a development . . . then there's incredible pressure on even well-intended planning agencies to just go along," said Madelyn Glickfeld, a member of the California Coastal Commission and an ex-officio member of the Mountains Conservancy board.
A third agency involved in preserving the Santa Monicas, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, hews to the more traditional path of analyzing development proposals.
The department--whose mountain preserves include Malibu Creek and Topanga state parks--prepares detailed comments on major projects, rather than bargaining on their design.
"Our role . . . is to point out our concerns and our technical observations," said Dan Preece, head of the department's Santa Monica Mountains district. "I can't ever recall a time when we attempted to balance the positive things about a project with the negative. We don't feel that's our role."
Said parks department district planner Neil Braunstein: "It's one thing to support the concept of the open space dedication. It's another thing entirely to support the development as a whole."
Edmiston said the strategy is paying off. "We are getting more and better land by a combination of buying and working with developers than we were by buying alone."
The biggest such deal, now awaiting action by Ventura County officials, would allow two big developers to build about 3,000 homes, two golf courses and a hotel and commercial complex on the scenic Ahmanson Ranch at the eastern edge of the county. In return, developers would donate and sell, for $29.5 million, more than 10,000 acres of mountain land, most of it owned by Hope.
But even this deal has its detractors, who say that park officials whose job is preserving natural areas should not countenance such intensive development.
And according to critics, two more recent cases also illustrate the contradiction of park agencies cutting such deals.
One involves Rancho Malibu, a luxury homes project in Encinal Canyon that ran into trouble last year before the state Coastal Commission. Over strenuous objections from the developers, the Anden Group and VMS Realty Partners, the commission staff urged that the project be reduced from 55 to 34 homes or else be rejected.
"The commission has approved no project in the Santa Monica Mountains which approaches the magnitude of this project's grading," Chuck Damm, district director for the Coastal Commission, said at a hearing last July.
Fewer homes, he said, would mean less grading, more open space, and less visual intrusion on nearby parklands.