Agencies' Feud Perils Purchase of Scenic Land

Times Staff Writer

A tentative agreement between two state parks agencies appears to have unraveled, threatening prospects for public acquisition of the scenic Circle X Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and state Coastal Conservancy were directed by the Legislature earlier this year to buy the Ventura County tract, which includes spectacular views of the coast from the highest peak and most prominent ridge in the mountain range.

The owner of the 1,655-acre ranch south of Newbury Park, the Los Angeles Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, plans to sell the land to raise money for another project, raising concern that the property could be acquired by developers.

Joe Edmiston, executive director of the mountains conservancy, said the planned state purchase is threatened by "unreasonable" guarantees being sought by the Coastal Conservancy to secure the $5.85 million it would loan for the deal.

Cash Demand Unacceptable

Edmiston said the mountains conservancy, which has agreed to put up hundreds of acres of parkland as collateral for the loan, cannot accept an added demand that it deposit $900,000 in cash, most of which it has pledged to use for recreational development at Lake Eleanor in Thousand Oaks.

Both agencies hope the loan can be recouped with money from a parks bond issue likely to go to voters during the next two years. If no bond funds have been approved by 1988, however, the Coastal Conservancy could recoup its loan by drawing on the cash and requiring sale of the land put up as collateral.

Edmiston said the mountains conservancy board has refused to withdraw a grant for Lake Eleanor, which is on Westlake Boulevard at the southern edge of Thousand Oaks. Even if the board were willing to renege on the grant, Edmiston said, it could not do so without the consent of the Conejo Recreation and Park District, which is a partner in the planned improvements at the lake.

Blood From Turnip

Edmiston said the deposit of cash, which was required Monday by the Coastal Conservancy, is unnecessary because land already put up as collateral could fetch $10 million if sold, nearly twice the amount of the loan.

"Heretofore, there has been blood to get out of the turnip," he said. "There ain't any blood left."

"The position of our board" is that it's "unreasonable . . . to stop other previously committed projects when they have 176% collateral" already, Edmiston said.

Edmiston said his agency will ask the Coastal Conservancy board to reconsider its decision to require cash.

But Peter Grenell, executive officer for the Coastal Conservancy, said a reversal is unlikely unless the mountains conservancy has new information to present.

The land pledged as collateral may not cover the loan, since "no one knows for sure what those properties will bring until they are actually sold," Grenell said.

More important, Grenell said, is the question of timing, because any delay in selling the land held as collateral might leave his agency broke by mid-1988.

"What they're saying is they have a prior commitment that they feel they can't break," Grenell said, referring to the Lake Eleanor project.

"Well, we feel we have prior commitments by the dozen, along the whole coastline, that we feel we can't break."

Scouts 'Being Used'

The Boy Scouts are "being used as a tennis ball in the middle of this," complained Ed Jacobs, president of the Scouts' Los Angeles Area Council.

The Scouts still hope "to consummate the deal with the state" so the ranch will remain open space, Jacobs said Wednesday. But private sale is "a real possibility" if delays continue, because the ranch must be sold to raise money for the Scouts' new Cabrillo youth waterfront camp and sports center in San Pedro, he said.

Circle X Ranch, which is next to Point Mugu State Park, includes Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monicas, and rugged Boney Ridge. There are 22 miles of hiking trails on the property, which will also be crossed by four miles of the proposed Backbone Trail linking Point Mugu to Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades.

The dispute over financing public acquisition of the ranch involves two agencies with a shared mission to preserve open space.

The Los Angeles-based mountains conservancy acquires parkland and trails in the Santa Monicas and in the hills and mountains ringing the San Fernando Valley. The Coastal Conservancy promotes land conservation, public access and urban waterfront restoration in coastal areas throughout the state.

Beginning of Battle

Their battle began earlier this year when the mountains conservancy, which did not have enough money for the Circle X purchase, managed to encumber part of the budget of the Coastal Conservancy, which did.

Sympathetic lawmakers inserted the Circle X purchase as a line item in the Coastal Conservancy budget, subject to a repayment agreement between the two agencies.

But, during the fall, mountains conservancy officials threatened to sue the other agency, complaining of delays in bringing the matter before the Coastal Conservancy board.

Finally, in November, the Coastal Conservancy board approved the $5.85 million loan, directing its staff to come back this past Monday with a repayment agreement.

The mountains conservancy agreed to the immediate sale of some Camarillo farmland, which it had acquired as surplus property from Camarillo State Hospital, to raise about $3 million for the Coastal Conservancy.

The mountains conservancy also agreed to pledge as collateral, and sell in 1988 if necessary, its Deer Creek Ranch property in Ventura County, as well as part of Wilacre Park in Studio City and land in Zuma Canyon in Malibu.

But the conditions approved Monday by the Coastal Conservancy board also included the disputed $900,000 in cash. The agency asked that the money be deposited in an account immediately.

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