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Last-Second Deal Ends Canyon Oaks Dispute : Parkland: The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy announces it will buy the site. Topanga residents cheer.

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 proposed site of a controversial 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 hammered out in grueling overnight negotiations and is as historic as the tortuous tale of the project itself.

If the board approves the deal later this month, the $19.9 million the conservancy offered for 662 acres in the canyon's Summit Valley area would be the highest price paid by the state agency since its 1979 creation. The conservancy intends to preserve the land in its natural state for public use.

The move scotches plans to develop Canyon Oaks Estates--a proposed private links-style golf course and 97 luxury home sites 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. In fact, he said, the corporation, part of a Disney family trust, will lose money--money he said cannot 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, which 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 trust established by the late Sharon Disney Lund, daughter of the late Walt Disney. Canyon Oaks is part of the trust, which is unrelated to other Walt Disney Co. ventures.

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

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

Most of the money for the purchase--about $14.1 million--will come from Proposition A funds already earmarked for land acquisition in the Santa Monica Mountains. That transaction will put 432 acres into public hands. The remaining 230 acres will cost about $5.8 million, due in August, 1995. Those funds are expected to come from Proposition 180, a statewide parks initiative on the June 7 ballot, or through fund-raising efforts, Edmiston said.

Supervisors, who have final say over disbursement of Proposition 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 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."

It first became apparent that something was in the works about 9:45 a.m. Thursday when a Canyon Oaks attorney asked for a 30-minute delay in the supervisors' hearing. Edelman, credited with brokering the deal, granted the attorney's request and hinted that something historic was about to take place.

That delay was key, providing enough time for an arm of the conservancy--the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority--to meet in Calabasas and take an emergency vote to purchase the property. As soon as news of that 4-0 vote was telephoned Downtown, supervisors resumed their meeting and announced the deal.

Hundreds of Topanga residents burst into applause and cheers, prompting Chairwoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke to bang her gavel and shout: "Forgive me, but this is not a football game."

It was a far happier ending for opponents than that anticipated just 24 hours earlier, when both sides believed that the project would ultimately end up before a judge.

Those involved in the last-minute negotiations said the impasse only began to lift Tuesday night when Edelman visited the property about three miles south of the Ventura Freeway.

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