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Surprise Deal Ends Bitter Land Battle : Development: If supervisors approve, Topanga Canyon parcel will be acquired as parkland for $19.9 million. Nearby residents have fought building plans for 16 years.

March 11, 1994|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The longest land-use dispute in Los Angeles County history came to a startling conclusion Thursday as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy announced that it would buy the site of a controversial proposed development in Topanga Canyon--just minutes before the Board of Supervisors was to vote on the project.

Hundreds of Topanga residents packing the board's cavernous Downtown chambers jumped to their feet and applauded as Supervisor Ed Edelman unveiled the eleventh-hour deal, which was reached in grueling overnight negotiations and is as historic as the tortuous tale of the project itself.

If the deal is approved by the board later this month, the $19.9 million the conservancy would pay for 662 acres in the canyon's Summit Valley area would be the highest price paid by the state agency for any property since it was created in 1979. The conservancy intends to preserve the land in its natural state for use by the public.

The move scotches plans to develop Canyon Oaks Estates--a proposed private golf course and 97 luxury homes on 257 acres--and ends a nasty fight pitting neighbor against neighbor that began 16 years ago when a different developer proposed a similar but much larger project.

Years of vehement community protest appeared to have taken their toll, in what detractors considered a rare victory against a well-financed opponent.

Robert L. Wilson, president of the Canyon Oaks Estates partnership, said the corporation was tired of fighting a battle that he said in recent months had degenerated into smear tactics and personal attacks. He said the corporation, which is part of a Disney family trust, will lose money in the deal--money he said can not be recouped through tax write-offs.

"We just wanted to reach a resolution," Wilson said.

Canyon Oaks had rejected previous purchase offers from the conservancy, a state agency that has acquired more than 20,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains for use as public parkland.

"This is a very positive first step," said Wilson, who helps manage the family trust established by the late Sharon Disney Lund, daughter of Walt Disney. Canyon Oaks is part of that trust, which is unrelated to other ventures of the Walt Disney Co.

Despite Thursday's announcement, plans to develop Canyon Oaks Estates will remain before county officials. If supervisors and the conservancy fail to finalize the deal before April 5, Wilson said, the corporation will press forward with its development proposal.

But Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy, said he does not expect any difficulty in realizing the agreements reached during a 19-hour negotiation session that ended at dawn Thursday.

Most of the money for the purchase--about $14.1 million--will come immediately from Proposition A funds already earmarked for land acquisition in the Santa Monica Mountains. The remainder--about $5.8 million--will be due in August, 1995, and will come either from a statewide parks initiative or through fund-raising efforts, Edmiston said.

Supervisors, who have final say over disbursement of Prop. A funds, are scheduled to vote March 29 on releasing the initial $14.1 million to the conservancy.

Within minutes of the deal's announcement, Topanga residents who an hour earlier had been noisily picketing the project outside the county building, were shaking hands with Canyon Oaks lawyers and managers, promising to work together to make sure the agreement holds.

To all but the tiny group of negotiators, news of the deal was a surprise. "I was like totally shocked," said Roger Pugliese, vice chairman of the Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community and one of the project's most vociferous critics. "But it could not have gone better."

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