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Recreation Area Copes With an Identity Crisis : Environment: The Santa Monica Mountains national park is 15 years old. Its best days may lie ahead.


To be fair, the Santa Monicas--with their brushy slopes and lack of dense forest cover--are a tough place to hide houses and roads.

But critics say local officials should have done more to blunt mansionization and harmonize development with the landscape.

"It's these towering, enormous buildings up on ridgelines that really are so terribly destructive of the whole area," Beilenson said.

"Clearly the county, even while allowing (construction), could have seen that (it) was more appropriate."

County officials say they have become more sensitive to the problem, but that it's uncertain how much they can or should do about the design and size of buildings.

"We have to go by the types of policies our elected officials have chosen to adopt or to follow," said Frank Meneses, chief of the impact analysis section of the Department of Regional Planning.

"We as a staff are more or less just trying to go with the flow."

But critics charge that the county not only has failed to control incompatible building, but has even required development that clashes with the rural setting.

An example is Silver Riviera Estates, a subdivision of 27 large tract homes across from the park's Peter Strauss Ranch.

Developers there were ordered by county public works officials to install such urban amenities as curbs, gutters and street lights despite complaints by park officials.

Such features are standard in the city but "it's not a good standard for the mountains," said recreation area Supt. David E. Gackenbach.

Park officials at times have appealed for voluntary help, but their missionary work has had no obvious effect on landowners and builders. The Park Service is now pushing a brochure on living in harmony with the park--including such tips as keeping grading to a minimum, planting native vegetation, using building materials and colors that complement the natural scenery, and using split-rail rather than solid fencing to permit wildlife movement.

Although incompatible development has long been the bane of the park, the brochure was only produced this year.

"We've been vocal, but probably not (as) aggressive . . . as we could have been," said Tony Gross, an environmental specialist with the Park Service. But he added: "As you well know if you drive around the park, some people have basically thumbed their nose at us."

Looking to the Future

At 15, the recreation area is at a crossroads. Whether it remains a useful, but disjointed, array of park fragments or becomes a connected, coherent whole remains to be seen.

In assessing the future, park supporters say the fight over the Soka land--which the Mountains Conservancy is trying to acquire for the park by eminent domain--will be pivotal. Funding prospects also remain a big unknown.

After eight lean years under President Reagan, and relative prosperity under President Bush, funding prospects until recently seemed bright.

Real estate prices slumped, and the Clinton election seemed destined to put serious money into land acquisition.

But supporters were stunned when the park became a casualty of Clinton's deficit-reduction plans.

After he proposed zero funding for fiscal 1994, congressional supporters salvaged $4 million, but that's the lowest total in six years. More lean budgets could follow.

There may be other opportunities, however. Voters in June are expected to decide a huge state parks bond measure that would provide $127 million for the Santa Monicas.

"I'm not so pessimistic," said Joseph T. Edmiston, head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. "Really, a lot of things are on the cusp."

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Parkland acquisition continues within the 150,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, where about 66,000 acres are now preserved.

Major park holdings include: National Park Service: 20,400 acres California Department of Parks and Recreation: 37,000 acres Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy: 6,100 acres Others*: 2,400 acres * Includes L.A. County, cities of Malibu and Los Angeles, Mountains Restoration Trust

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