Fearful the Ahmanson Ranch deal will collapse, parks officials on Thursday sweetened their offer to entertainer Bob Hope, proposing to pay him top dollar for two properties while letting him retain ownership of a third sprawling mountain ranch.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a regional parks agency, voted unanimously to offer Hope $19.5 million for the oak-studded Jordan Ranch in the Simi Hills and pristine Corral Canyon in Malibu.
Such a sale, if approved by Hope, would split the parkland promised as the key element in the Ahmanson Ranch project approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in December.
Under that agreement, the supervisors approved construction of a mini-city on the Ahmanson Ranch in the Simi Hills--but only on the condition that parks agencies gain ownership of Jordan Ranch, Corral Canyon, Runkle Ranch near Simi Valley and Liberty Canyon outside Thousand Oaks.
By making a separate offer to purchase Jordan Ranch and Corral Canyon, park officials in effect isolated part of the open-space acquisition from the development project, a move environmentalists have been pushing for months.
"We are in favor of this partial transaction because it demonstrates what we have been saying all along--that the Bob Hope sale is separate from the Ahmanson development," said Virginia Pollack of Save Open Space, an Agoura-based environmental group.
"If the land isn't linked (to the development). . . you're left with the question, Why are we even approving this project?" she added.
For the parks agencies, the offer to buy Jordan Ranch and Corral Canyon in isolation is a gamble.
If Hope accepts $19.5 million for his two properties, he will be left holding the trump card--Runkle Ranch, a craggy, 4,369-acre stretch of rugged bluffs north of the Simi Valley Freeway.
Development on the Ahmanson mini-city cannot proceed until Runkle becomes protected open space, and parks officials indicated Thursday they would not pay a nickel for the ranch if they ante up $19.5 million for the other two properties.
Thus, Hope would have to donate Runkle Ranch to clear the way for the Ahmanson mini-city--which he has agreed to do during discussions over the last two years.
The entertainer is slated to receive an undisclosed percentage of the development's profits, but this revenue could be a long time in materializing, as Ahmanson must battle nine lawsuits and deal with tens of millions of dollars in plaintiffs' settlement requests before building a single house.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District remains interested in Runkle Ranch as a landfill site. Blind Canyon, which runs through the property, was identified as one of three "environmentally preferable" sites for a landfill in Los Angeles County, said Steve Maguin, head of the district's solid waste management.
Hope's attorney did not return phone calls Thursday. Principals from Ahmanson Land Co. and Hope's development firm, Potomac Investment Associates, were traveling and unavailable for comment.
But parks officials, clearly angry at the delays that have held up their acquisition of the open space, painted their offer as Hope's last and best chance to earn money from his property, which he originally hoped to develop as a luxury enclave and premiere golf course.
The National Park Service has set a March 31 deadline for completion of the original deal, after which it will withdraw the $19.5 million it set aside in mid-January to buy the land.
Since placing that money in escrow, the park service has lost $3,000 to $8,000 a day in interest, because federal law requires that money reserved for land acquisition be set aside in a non-interest bearing account, said David Gackenbach, regional superintendent for the parks agency.
The developers should "put up or shut up," said an angry Joseph Edmiston, executive officer of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
"Mr. Hope should be told in no uncertain terms, 'We've provided you with the audience, we've sold the tickets, and either you go on stage and perform or we'll go away and bring in another performer.' "
Edmiston warned Hope to heed the looming deadline. If Wednesday passes without signed documents, he said, "the whole thing's over."
Rather than stand by and watch the deal unravel and the park service lose its chance to secure spectacular mountain property, Edmiston urged his board to authorize a separate sale for Jordan and Corral.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has already paid $10 million to Potomac Investment Associates for Liberty Canyon, a 403-acre parcel that forms part of a crucial wildlife corridor just off the Ventura Freeway.
Potomac has agreed to buy back Liberty Canyon for $10 million and then donate most of the land to the conservancy once the deal for Jordan, Corral and Runkle is wrapped up, said Ann Rushton, legal counsel for the conservancy.
But if the parks agencies buy just Jordan and Corral, Potomac will not be obligated to fulfill this commitment--and the conservancy will be stuck with the $10-million bill for Liberty, Rushton said.
Despite this hefty price for the tiny property, she said, "the object is to get as much as we possibly can."
Although environmentalists would be thrilled if the Ahmanson development failed to materialize, they would forfeit not only the 4,369-acre Runkle Ranch, but also the 2,633 acres of open space that Ahmanson Land Co. had agreed to donate once the deal went through.