Controls on Parklands Purchases Tightened

Times Staff Writer

Western regional officials of the National Park Service say that controversy over a recent $8-million land acquisition for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area has prompted them to tighten controls over such transactions.

Federal officials in Washington say three other federal conservation agencies may also change certain land-acquisition procedures following a congressional inquiry into the January purchase of land in lower Cheeseboro Canyon, just east of Agoura Hills.

The change adopted by regional Park Service officials will mean closer scrutiny of land purchases involving intermediaries, such as conservation groups. These groups often have acquired property from private landowners for resale to federal agencies, a procedure designed to prevent development of tracts that government agencies want for parkland but temporarily lack money to buy.

Full Disclosure Desired

Howard Chapman, regional director for the Park Service in San Francisco, said this week that his staff will no longer buy land from intermediaries without full disclosure by these groups of what they paid for the property. Chapman also said the western region--which covers California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and the Pacific Trust Territories--will commission its own appraisals in the case of third-party transactions rather than rely on those submitted by conservation groups.

The policies were prompted by criticism of the Park Service's handling of the purchase of a 337-acre parcel in Cheeseboro Canyon from the Oren Realty and Development Co.

The land was acquired Jan. 10 by the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based conservation group. The trust, which did not disclose what it paid Oren for the property, immediately resold the land to the Park Service for $8 million, or nearly $24,000 per acre.

Land Called a Bargain

Trust and Park Service officials boasted that the land was a bargain, citing an appraisal commissioned by the trust that estimated the market value of the land at $8.4 million.

Although area conservationists generally cheered the purchase of the scenic, oak-dotted tract, some said the price appeared to by millions of dollars too high.

Prompted by complaints about the $8-million cost, Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on interior, last month asked Department of the Interior officials if they might in some instances "be paying a premium price" for land acquired in third-party transactions. In a letter to the agency, Yates also questioned federal reliance on appraisals commissioned by private groups.

Reply to Yates

Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, responding to Yates in a letter dated Feb. 28, said agency officials "share your concerns and are particularly cognizant of events surrounding the recent purchase of the Oren Realty tract at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area."

George Berklacy, a Park Service spokesmen in Washington, said officials are considering extending Chapman's new policies for Park Service acquisitions nationwide. He said the policy might also be applied by two other Interior Department agencies--the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management--and by the Forest Service, an arm of the Department of Agriculture.

The Times reported Feb. 17 that the Trust had paid Oren $7.5 million for the Cheeseboro Canyon tract, and thus made a $500,000 profit through resale to the government, funds that were plowed back into the trust's land-buying program.

Competing Offer Report

The Times also reported that the private appraisal justifying the $8-million payment by the Park Service was based partly on an unverified report of a higher competing offer for the property.

Park Service memos showed that one of its appraisers unsuccessfully urged his superiors to verify that there was a competing offer before approving the appraisal.

The Park Service appraiser, Tom Hickman, also questioned why the private appraisal did not include a downward adjustment for the presence of the Calabasas Landfill on the tract's southern boundary. The landfill, where toxic liquids were dumped between 1968 and 1980, is visible from part of the property.

Park Service officials accepted the private appraiser's contention that the landfill did not lower the market value of the property.

'No Third-Party Appraisals'

Chapman said that, from now on, regional Park Service officials "will not accept a third-party appraisal" and will commission their own. "We should be in a position to give our own instructions to the appraiser rather than depend on the instructions that may have been given by a third party," he said.

He also said that regional officials will not buy land through third parties without full disclosure of the option price and any other agreements between the intermediaries and private landowners.

Trust for Public Land officials said the Oren property would have been developed were it not for their involvement. In many instances, they said, they have been able to negotiate with landowners who refuse to deal directly with government agencies.

'Normally Saves Money'

At a time of tight government budgets and development pressure on environmentally sensitive land, the trust and groups such as the Nature Conservancy have played a key role in saving parkland from development, government officials say.

Because landowners can claim tax deductions for selling land to such groups at below market cost, the arrangement "normally . . . saves us money rather than costs us money," a spokesman for the Department of the Interior said.

In his letter to Yates, Hodel said a report on the Oren transaction would be submitted to Yates' subcommittee.

The issue also may come up next Wednesday and Thursday, when Park Service officials are scheduled to appear before the subcommittee for a hearing on their 1986 budget.

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