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Davis Scrambles to Sign Land Deals

Critics say the price tags of Ahmanson and Ballona are too high, leaving other projects unfunded.

September 30, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

A week before a recall vote that could end his political career, Gov. Gray Davis' administration is scrambling to complete two blockbuster land conservation deals today for more than $275 million: the purchase of Ahmanson Ranch and the remaining piece of the Ballona Wetlands.

The Wildlife Conservation Board, the state panel that holds the purse strings for park money, was not scheduled to meet until November. But it is convening a special meeting today to approve money for deals in what Davis administration officials concede is a move to make the purchases happen before the recall election.

While most environmental groups strongly support the purchases, which will be financed with voter-approved bond money, a few conservationists are complaining that the Davis administration is paying too much for the properties in its rush to complete the deals before election day next Tuesday.

Critics also fear that many smaller, but still significant, open space deals all over Southern California could now be in jeopardy due to insufficient funding.

Davis administration officials dismiss both concerns. They maintain that the state is set to pay fair-market price for what is considered prime real estate. Both Ahmanson Ranch in eastern Ventura County and the Ballona Wetlands along the coast in West Los Angeles have been the subject of intense development battles.

"Coastal land in California is not getting any cheaper," California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols said. "Every day we delay, these projects will cost more, because the developers will be farther along in the approval process."

Davis officials also maintain that while there will not be enough money for everything environmentalists want, there should be sufficient funding left over for the more significant conservation deals, including the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Orange County.

However, state officials acknowledged that the Ballona and Ahmanson deals would essentially gobble up the nearly $300 million from Proposition 50 that was earmarked for coastal preservation projects in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Proposition 50, a statewide bond measure approved by voters last year, also contained an additional $250 million for five Southern California counties.

But that money will now be spread thinner, and thus projects lower on the priority list may no longer receive funding, state officials said.

"There is still $250 million. But there is a list of projects that is a lot longer than the funding we have," said Al Wright, executive director of the California Wildlife Conservation Board.

Claremont leaders said Monday that their city on the eastern end of Los Angeles County was already feeling the fallout.

Claremont applied to the state for $6 million to $8 million in Proposition 50 money to purchase roughly 450 acres of hillside land on the city's outskirts threatened by development.

The city and conservationists heard informally that the application scored high on a list of criteria used by the state to rank projects, and that funding was likely. But recently, Claremont learned that the state's priorities had changed -- and that the money was now in doubt, officials said.

"We believe this side of the county deserves funding too," said Claremont assistant city manager Jim Lewis, adding that the city's mayor had just fired off a letter to the state. "When we all voted for this bond, we didn't vote just to save the stuff on the Westside," Lewis said. "We're trying to preserve our hillsides from development too."

In what is essentially a fait accompli, the Wildlife Conservation Board, made up of three Davis appointees, including state Finance Director Steve Peace, is set to fund four sizable land deals totaling $313.3 million:

* $140 million to preserve what is left of the Ballona Wetlands, roughly 483 acres near Marina del Rey that represent the last coastal marsh in Los Angeles County. The complex deal to buy a 192-acre portion of the property from the developers of the Playa Vista project involves the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, the California Coastal Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game.

* $135 million to acquire about 2,800 acres of the Ahmanson Ranch, in the Simi Hills that separate Ventura County from the San Fernando Valley. The state would help the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and other agencies buy the land from developer Washington Mutual and protect rare plants and wildlife on the land.

* $20 million to help study ways to restore the Salton Sea in Imperial and Riverside counties. The money is part of a larger state water deal.

* $18.3 million to expand the Grizzly Creek Forest Area in Humboldt County. The state would buy the 691 acres from logging company Pacific Lumber to help preserve giant redwoods.

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