The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that acquires and preserves parkland, seems an unlikely target for a lawsuit by an environmental group.
But the Friends of Caballero Canyon has filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court in an attempt to stop the conservancy from turning nine acres of undeveloped land south of Tarzana into a public park.
The land lies at the southern tip of Reseda Boulevard in a rugged, chaparral-and sage-covered area known as Reseda Ridge. The conservancy is working to convert it to a tree-filled, grassy park.
The $1.2-million project is about half completed, according to conservancy officials.
But members of the Caballero Canyon group say that the park project, which also includes an irrigation system, picnic areas and bathrooms, would radically transform the delicate ecosystem of the area.
"It's unnatural and incompatible," said Jill Swift, group president. "Why don't we plant a forest of trees in Eastern Mojave Park? Because it's inappropriate."
Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy, countered that the Friends of Caballero Canyon wants to keep anyone out of the area who is not a "rugged hiker type."
"They don't want the vast majority of the Valley to be able to use" the park, Edmiston said.
The Caballero Canyon group filed the lawsuit in April, contending that the project should not be allowed to continue without an updated environmental review.
The conservancy completed an environmental review of the park project in 1992, when the budget was far lower. Friends of Caballero Canyon contends that the project has changed significantly since then--from calling for minimal improvements to calling for radical changes. Excess water from the park's planned irrigation system, they say, will drown existing plants.
The conservancy project calls for 300 to 500 new trees, 25,000 square feet of lawn, a park ranger's cabin, an outdoor classroom, parking and hiking trails. The Friends group charges that this would make the area more like an urban park than a park that blends in with its mountainous location, overlooking Caballero Canyon.
Edmiston defended the conservancy's plans, saying his organization wants to improve the area that was at one time partly graded by a developer. He said measures will be taken to ensure that there will be no excess water runoff from the irrigation system.
"We are experts in the development of parks," Edmiston said. "The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has improved dozens of sites. These are things that can be dealt with, through appropriate measures, and we will."
He questioned the Friends of Caballero Canyon's description of themselves as an environmental group. "They have forfeited the right to be called an environmental organization when they oppose the planting of trees."
A Superior Court judge has set Dec. 14 as the trial date for the lawsuit.