Saddlebags bulging with cash, movie director Steven Spielberg and actress-wife Kate Capshaw have galloped to the rescue of Brentwood horse lovers threatened by home builders.
The two are donating $12 million for the purchase of surplus Los Angeles school property in Sullivan Canyon that, for more than three decades, has been used as a community equestrian club.
The gift will ensure that the 8.3-acre site north of Sunset Boulevard remains open space accessible to horse riders, according to leaders of the Sullivan Canyon Preservation Assn., which operates riding rings there and will own the land.
Until the Spielbergs' offer, the unused school site had been earmarked for sale to private developers, who would have built more multimillion-dollar homes in the ritzy canyon between Brentwood and Pacific Palisades.
"It's an incredibly generous gift," said Mary Sweeney, who heads the association. Its 140-member riding club is open to the public for yearly fees that total $350 per rider and $500 per horse.
The canyon land was acquired in 1961 by the Los Angeles Unified School District in anticipation of a Westside enrollment explosion. But the elementary school planned for the site was never built. The surrounding hillside neighborhoods were soon dotted with large homes occupied by people who either had no children or sent them to private schools.
The empty school site was used for horseback riding--informally at first. By the late 1960s, local people asked for permission to set up riding rings and jumps. To handle liability issues, riders formed the Sullivan Canyon Riders Club and entered into what became a series of three-year contracts with the school district.
Two years ago, however, school officials were criticized for what some categorized as "welfare for the rich." The district was renting, for $16,000 a year, a site on which it was paying $55,000 annually in property taxes.
After first suggesting that the land might fetch as much as $27 million if sliced up into private home sites, officials eventually settled on the $12-million selling price. The Riders Club countered by forming the Preservation Assn. and linking up with a state-authorized conservation group in hopes of buying it.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority--an entity tied to local park districts in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks--sued in an attempt to force the school district to sell the land to the authority for $2 million. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled against that group in January.
The Recreation and Conservation Authority, which has been engaged for years in a fight with the city of Malibu over its commercialized use of mountain parkland donated by singer Barbra Streisand, will have no further role in the equestrian club's operation, Sweeney said Monday.
"We don't plan to build anything. We'll probably clean up the old fencing and secure it a little better," Sweeney said. "We're not looking to make it a Bel-Air country club. We're not going to have a clubhouse. We've operated 30 years without one just fine."
As part of the agreement, Spielberg will retain a 3/4-acre portion of the equestrian site adjoining residential property that he and Capshaw own. The two have built a residence and a large outdoor riding ring on 2.8 acres there.
Those relatively modest facilities took the place of an earlier, controversial proposal to build a five-story, 27,000-square-foot domed equestrian center on the lot, the former home of the late actor Dane Clark that the Spielbergs had bought for $5.75 million in 1999.
The Spielbergs were unavailable for comment Monday. But a spokesman, Andy Spahn, said the 3/4-acre chunk will be used as a "turnout" where horses unwind before and after being exercised.
"Kate and Steven discussed it and made the decision together as a way of allowing the community to have open space," Spahn said. "The Preservation Assn. would have had to sell off three-quarters of the property to developers" to afford to buy any of the school site for equestrian use. "That prompted Kate and Steven to step forward."
The Los Angeles school board approved the sale June 26. A Board of Education member, Marlene Canter, praised the deal as one that provides "badly needed funding for our facilities program while preserving scarce open space for years to come."
In a statement, City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who represents the Brentwood area, characterized the sale as a "great ending" to "so many years of contention between the school district and the community over the disposition of this property."
Officials said escrow would close in about 18 months.