Park Service Buys Tract for Record $8-Million Price

Times Staff Writer

The amount of land acquired for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area grew to 10,000 acres this month when the National Park Service bought a tract west of the San Fernando Valley for $8 million, the most expensive single purchase in the six-year history of the mountain park.

Officials with the park service and a foundation that arranged the purchase described the 337-acre swath of rolling, oak-dotted hills in lower Cheeseboro Canyon as an attractive and strategic addition to the national recreation area.

The tract, a mile north of the Ventura Freeway and just east of Agoura Hills, is not only "a beautiful piece of property," but also will furnish needed public access to the 1,810 acres of upper Cheeseboro Canyon that the park service acquired in 1981, said Daniel R. Kuehn, superintendent of the national recreation area. The canyon, home to golden eagles and several species of hawk, could only be reached before by crossing private land and hiking over two ridges, park officials said.

Two Transactions

The park service gained control of the property through back-to-back transactions. The first involved sale of the land by Oren Realty and Development Co. Inc. to the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based conservation group that acquires land for government agencies temporarily strapped for cash. The trust, which got an option on the land in 1983 because the park service then lacked the money to buy it, played the same role in helping the park service acquire the upper canyon tract.

Park service officials said the $8 million they paid--or more than $23,000 per acre--was $400,000 less than the land's appraised value. They said they do not know what the trust paid the Oren company for the land.

Officials with the trust and Oren would not disclose the amount, although they acknowledged that the Trust made a profit. Lisa McGimsey, a trust vice president, said the group had a significant investment in staff time and title and survey work.

Had the deal failed "to proceed at this moment, the property would be developed," McGimsey said.

She also said the trust Jan. 9 signed an option to acquire another tract on behalf of the park service, the 604-acre Roberts Ranch property in Solstice Canyon, just inland from Corral State Beach.

Trust officials said Oren Realty should be recognized "for its willingness to work toward a compromise solution resulting in the protection of the sensitive canyon land."

The sale leaves Oren Realty with 474 of an original 811 acres the company had hoped to develop into a commercial, industrial and residential complex with 2,010 housing units just north of the Cheeseboro Road freeway exit.

Development Rejected

The development plan was denounced by many neighbors and Agoura Hills officials as overly intensive, particularly since most of the site was designated as a "sensitive ecological area" under county plans because of its oak tree and wildlife habitat. The plan was rejected by the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission in August, 1983.

Rad Sutnar, consulting project director for Oren Realty, said the company still hopes to build about 1,050 housing units and an office, commercial and light industrial complex on the remaining 474 acres.

He said the parkland sale was not an attempt to defuse opposition. "Everything has to stand on its merits," he said.

Sutnar said Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district covers the area, suggested to Oren that it meet with the trust about the time the original development plan was defeated. He said Antonovich suggested that "something could be worked out so they could preserve the natural beauty in the area and you could proceed with your development. Maybe there's some way everybody can be happy."

Bill Farrand, a park service spokesman, said "there's no implicit agreement on our part" to support the amended development plan because of the sale. "We're very happy to get the piece of property," Farrand said. "We're very happy Oren was a willing seller." But he said the park service will still comment on any aspect of the plan that could interfere with federal management of Cheeseboro Canyon.

Although the latest acquisition has long been a priority for the park, the high price troubled at least one staunch park supporter.

Margo Feuer, a member of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Citizens Advisory Commission, said, "There's no question the land should have been acquired," but, "I can't for the life of me figure out why the land is so expensive."

Oren reportedly acquired the entire 811 acres in 1978 for between $4.1 million and $5 million.

Kuehn said the $8 million is "a lot of money, there's no doubt about that." But the amount "doesn't really seem out of line" given the property's freeway access and development potential, he said.

Kuehn also said the Park Service has paid more per acre for at least two other tracts in the Santa Monica Mountains. He mentioned one that cost $29,000 per acre and another in Franklin Canyon north of Beverly Hills that went for $40,000 per acre.

David Brown, a conservationist from Calabasas who has fought the Oren development, said the price seems "pretty stiff, but will we say in another 20 . . . years that the price is pretty stiff, when everything around it is condominiums and shopping centers?" He blamed the high cost for public land on the "shortsighted" failure to set aside such areas decades ago when land was cheap.

$5 Million Left

The purchase leaves the park service with about $5 million to buy land through the fiscal year that ends in September.

The national recreation area is a string of exisiting parks and trails that encompasses about 150,000 acres of private and public land between Griffith Park in Los Angeles and Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County. Park plans call for eventual public ownership of about half the area, with the rest staying in private hands or being secured by easements.

Plans call for eventual federal ownership of about 35,000 acres. Another 40,000 acres are already controlled by the state Department of Parks and Recreation and by local agencies.

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