Would Put Off Purchase of 2 Other Sites to Get Malibu Land : Conservancy Struggles to Buy 'Critical' Acreage

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to preserve a pristine Malibu canyon tract of nearly 1,000 acres, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has offered to postpone acquisition of two other local properties to free half the money needed for a rapid purchase.

Conservancy officials are so afraid that the owners of Lower Zuma Canyon will build a hotel, golf course or housing there--or sell the tract to others for development--that they are willing to suspend negotiations for Malibu Sequit and Cold Creek Ranch.

Malibu Sequit is 150 acres north of Pacific Coast Highway, adjacent to Leo Carrillo State Park and Nicholas Canyon County Beach in western Malibu. Owners have been bargaining with the conservancy but also are planning a recreational vehicle park on the site. Cold Creek Ranch is 93.9 acres near Monte Nido in the mountains.

In June, Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a proposed $6-million allocation for 973 acres in Zuma Canyon, saying in his budget message that the money "is needed for higher-priority projects."

State money for Malibu Sequit and Cold Creek Ranch already has been approved. Last week, conservancy officials suggested using the $3 million for those properties to finance half the Zuma Canyon purchase--if the state will contribute the remaining $3 million.

The conservancy's new plan "is a good-faith show to the Administration," said Mercedes Azar, senior assistant to Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles), who pushed for the acquisitions. "They're saying this project is important enough that they're willing to put aside two of their top priorities."

Said Sonia Thompson, a conservancy analyst: "These others are really wonderful pieces, too," but the canyon tract is "a very critical piece."

The canyon, north of Point Dume and about two miles inland, is owned by the Adamson Companies, a partnership formed by descendants of the pioneering Adamson and Rindge families. The land was obtained by the Rindges in 1890.

The tract is the largest undeveloped canyon property in Los Angeles County, and is a big chunk of the Zuma-Trancas canyon park envisioned by the National Park Service.

So far, the park service has paid $10.3 million for 2,800 acres in Zuma and Trancas, adjoining canyons. The park service would like to acquire another 4,450 acres, including Lower Zuma Canyon, said Sondra Humphries, a park service realty specialist.

For two years, the park service negotiated with Adamson but was unable to get Congress to grant money for the purchase, Humphries said.

So the park service asked the conservancy--empowered by the state to buy land to preserve open space--to buy Lower Zuma Canyon and hold it for safekeeping.

The two agencies reached an understanding: If the park service could get the money for the canyon within four years, it would buy the land from the conservancy. If not, the conservancy could sell the property to someone else to recoup its expenditure.

Humphries said it is unclear whether the park service can eventually succeed in persuading Congress to allocate money for Lower Zuma Canyon. "That's like you and I taking a coin, throwing it in the air and guessing which side will face up," she said.

Fences and locked gates keep most of the public away from the property's chaparral-covered hillsides and plateaus with spectacular views of the ocean and mountains.

Determined hikers can reach the canyon from Kanan Dume Road. And Adamson has distributed gate keys to some local equestrian clubs so members can ride horses there.

The park service would like to keep the canyon in its natural state, adding only some trails, Humphries said.

Adamson has been willing to sell the land to avoid a condemnation battle in court. But if neither the federal government nor the state will allocate the money to purchase the canyon, Adamson is interested in building.

"We've been wanting to develop it and we still want to develop it," said Alfred Edgerton, the partnership's director of legal services. A hotel and golf course surrounded by houses is one of several options under consideration, he said.

Edgerton said he did not know when Adamson would go forward with development plans but added, "This would be an appropriate time, though I don't say immediately."

The state Department of Finance is considering the compromise proposal but has not yet made a recommendation to Deukmejian. Said department analyst Kirk Stewart: "$3 million is better than $6 million but there are enough competing interests that we need to decide whether we can afford it or want to afford it."

The state has had about $200 million worth of requests for about $60 million left in a special account, financed by tideland oil, that the conservancy wants to tap, Stewart said. Among the other candidates for funding from the account are a Los Angeles prison, a state day-care program and the Stringfellow Acid Disposal Pits in Riverside, he said.

Sarah Dixon, president of the Malibu Township Council--a civic group representing about 1,000 families--criticized the compromise proposal. "We're not supporting either-or actions," she said. "We are very anxious to see the Zuma Canyon property purchased . . . but certainly not at the sacrifice of other properties."

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