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Plan to Preserve Land Near Joshua Tree Park Hits a Wall

The state rejects an environmental group's appraisal of 9,000 acres, blocking a bid to buy the property. The owner may seek to develop it.

October 16, 2003|Deborah Sullivan Brennan and Louis Sahagun | Special to The Times

The state Department of General Services has rejected a conservation group's appraisal of nearly 9,000 acres next to Joshua Tree National Park, dashing a plan to purchase the property and protect it from development.

E.J. Remson, senior program manager of the Nature Conservancy, said he was deeply disappointed by the determination that the appraisal of $26 million was too high, given that five state agencies had already agreed to contribute a total of $17 million toward the purchase.

"I just don't get it," he said. "I hired an appraiser with a good, long track record with the state, a person who never had an appraisal rejected."

Nonetheless, he said, state officials had concluded that the land was worth only $8 million to $11.5 million.

"I firmly believe that the value is higher than what they say," Remson said, adding that an earlier audit had placed the value at close to $40 million.

"We know for sure that we had a fair price worked out, and the Department of General Services has chosen to reject that fair price for whatever reason," said Denys Arcuri, legislative assistant to Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson, who helped broker the deal.

The department's decision blocks proposed contributions toward the acquisition from state agencies, including California State Parks, the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Board.

Al Wright, executive director of the conservation board, the acquisitions arm of the state Department of Fish and Game, said his agency concurred with that decision. Although he would not disclose dollar amounts, he said the state had objected, not to the appraised price itself, but to its documentation.

"My staff and the Department of General Services didn't think this particular appraisal had enough information to support the conclusions," he said.

He added that the property's vast size and special location made it difficult to assess accurately.

The Nature Conservancy says the area represents some of the last dune habitat in the Coachella Valley and forms a vital link between the national park and the nearby Coachella Valley Preserve.

Bill Havert, spokesman for the preserve, said the property's Canadian owners, Cathton Holdings Ltd., had "made no secret that they would continue to seek the development option if the acquisition did not occur."

Company officials could not be reached for comment.

In August, developer Richard Oliphant dropped plans to build Joshua Hills -- a 9,000-acre business park, university and housing project -- on the site north of Interstate 10 near Palm Springs because opposition from local government leaders and environmental groups appeared insurmountable.

Wright said the state had not abandoned plans to preserve the land. Over the coming months, he said, the Wildlife Conservation Board or the General Services Department could conduct an appraisal to determine a fair purchase price, which might be lower or higher than the $26 million.

"We want to help get this thing done," he said. "We just want to get it done right."

Remson of the Nature Conservancy said he hoped to keep the opportunity open and would ask the landowners to extend a deadline for a deposit on the property.

But local officials were despondent over the setback. Arcuri called the rejection of the deal "a very risky gamble. We think we'll probably lose the whole thing."

Havert of the preserve said prospects for the acquisition were fading.

"We don't give up easily," he said. "But it's a huge, uphill battle at this point."

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