October 1, 2014

The Battle for Santa Monica Mountains Goes On

 

Rep. Brad Sherman is carrying on the fight to bring federal money back to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA).

President Obama’s proposal for $2.4 million in federal land acquisition funds for the Santa Monica Mountains is one of only six nationwide acquisition priorities in the Administration’s budget and the only proposed Park Service acquisition in California this year.

Though $2.4 million is not a large enough appropriation, it does represent the first serious National Park Service land acquisition appropriation proposal in the last 15 years.

HISTORY OF THE “GREAT PARK”

Thirty-five years ago the Los Angeles Times Magazine ran a magnificent, full-page color photo of Piuma Ridge and Malibu Canyon called “Last Chance for a Wild, Wonderful World.”

Malibu Creek State Park was still “Century Ranch,” a private movie ranch closed to the public, as was Paramount Ranch.

The State had just bought Trippett Ranch, the first installment of Topanga State Park, but had leased it to one of the biggest developers in the Mountains who proceeded to use it as his personal horse ranch.

Yet, by the 1960’s, more and more people were moving into scenic mountain communities like Brentwood, Topanga, and Monte Nido, while others were taking a closer look at the scenery when they drove through the deep gorge of Malibu Canyon.

Before long there were others beginning to dream Brentwood resident Sue Nelson’s impossible dream of building a “Great Park” in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Then, in 1976, Congressman Tony Beilenson introduced legislation in Congress proposing the creation of a “Santa Monica Mountains and Seashore National Park,” and made it a priority.

PUBLIC LAW 95-625

By 1978, Beilenson had managed to get Public Law 95-625, the Omnibus Bill, establishing the “Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area,” passed by the House of Representatives, but the bill stalled in the Senate and time was running out.

That was the meaning of the photo and caption in the Los Angeles Times Magazine that fall.

On October 12, 1978, with Congress set to adjourn in just a couple of days, and with the Omnibus Bill still stalled in the Senate, a very anxious group of park supporters met in an office in West Los Angeles to figure out how to persuade the Senate to adopt Public Law 95-625.

As the day dragged on with no word from Washington, tension built up in the room.

Then, about 9:30 p.m., when most of us had given up hope and were getting ready to go home, the pay phone in the hall suddenly rang.

We all looked at each other, too nervous to get up to answer it at first. Then Margot Feuer got up, walked out to the hall, and returned a few minutes later.

That late-night call on the pay phone in the hall was from Congressman Tony Beilenson’s office in Washington, letting us know that Public Law 95-625 had just passed the Senate.

For the first time it looked like the “wild, wonderful world” of the Santa Monica Mountains, might have a future, after all.

Development interests, which had blocked creation of the Park for years, were taken by surprise, but rallied quickly and sent off a blizzard of letters and telegrams urging President Carter to veto Public Law 95-625. But it was too late.

On November 10, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-625.

OUTER PROTECTION BOUNDARY

The legislation authorized creation of a 153,705-acre outer protection boundary that took in most of the Mountains west of the 405 freeway to Point Mugu, along with Cheseboro and Palo Comado Canyons north of the 101 freeway.

But in 1978 almost none of the land within the outer protection boundary of the new park belonged to the Federal Government; it was private property subject to whatever zoning and development plans its owners and the local authorities were willing to allow — and that was usually quite a bit.

For example, the Park Service wanted to purchase the old Sampo Ranch in the upper Las Virgenes Valley and turn it into the main visitor center for the park, but the developer, Currey-Riach, had already filed plans with the County for a zone change and tract map that would allow 1100 homes and condominiums and over a million square feet of commercial floor space on their Lost Hills property and that’s what the Board of Supervisors eventually approved.

Another possible site for the visitor center was the old Claretville property at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway. Yet an outfit known as the Church Universal and Triumphant, which had announced plans to build a large city on the site, had purchased it.

The Park Service also had its eyes set on Paramount Ranch, where Richard Mark had already filed a zone change with the County to build a tract of 300 homes, while Oren Realty was planning to build 1700 condominiums, a shopping center and an industrial park in place of the great oaks in Cheseboro Canyon.

BUYING THE LAND

While most of our great national parks were created out of lands already owned by the Federal Government, the SMMNRA has had to be purchased one piece at a time from private owners — many of them developers — who had become used to looking on their land as a business investment and a source of personal profit.

The money to buy the land that would become this “Great Park” in the Santa Monica Mountains would have be to be assembled from scratch out of whatever funds Congress could be persuaded to appropriate each year from the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a special fund financed by revenue from consumptive uses (mining, grazing, oil drilling, etc.) on federal lands.

With one stroke of the pen, Congress had authorized the creation of the world’s largest urban national park, but yet to be determined was how they would find the money to buy more than a small fraction of the 153,705 acres within the outer protection boundary.

Public Law 95-625 had authorized the Secretary of the Interior to spend a total of $155 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase land for the SMMNRA, but each annual appropriation first had to be approved by Congress in that year’s federal budget and the Santa Monica Mountains had to compete for that money with supporters of many other parks and other federal projects throughout the country that lobbied each year for the limited budget allocation.

PARK SERVICE VS. DEVELOPERS

Because of the intense development pressure on potential park acquisitions, Beilenson and other park supporters urged Congress to make the $155 million in authorized land acquisition money available over the next five years.

The Park Service spent the first year of the park drawing up the required Land Protection Plan that listed the properties that it had determined were its highest priorities for acquisition.

When Congress began to make funds available, they were used to purchase key properties listed in the Plan.

These properties included Paramount Ranch, Rancho Sierra Vista in Ventura County, and Diamond X Ranch.

Land acquisition seemed to be going smoothly at first. In 1980 the Park Service received an appropriation of $20 million from Congress and entered into negotiations to purchase the Sampo Ranch (Lost Hills) property in the upper Las Virgenes Valley.

STYMIED BY WASHINGTON POLITICS AND JAMES WATT

The political climate in Washington soon changed dramatically. Ronald Reagan took office as President in 1981 and appointed James Watt as his Secretary of the Interior.

Watt turned out to be radically opposed to parks in general and the Santa Monica Mountains in particular. The negotiations for Sampo Ranch were terminated, and most of the $20 million in land acquisition funds already appropriated by Congress was reverted back to the treasury, leaving the Park Service with no funds to buy land for the next several years.

The same development interests who had opposed establishment of the Park in the first place now