Congress Curbs Park Service : Chicago Clout Reaches to Santa Monica Mountains

Times Staff Writer

A decision that germinated in the Democratic wards of Chicago and flowered in Washington will place potentially severe restrictions on National Park Service efforts to add to its property in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Accusing the Park Service of a "policy and practice of harassment of landowners" in the Santa Monica Mountains, Congress has placed new limits on the service's authority to condemn land there. The harsh criticism came in a report accompanying a budget bill.

The funding legislation contained $1 million--much less than anticipated--for buying land this year in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, a 10-year-old effort to build a network of public open space in the hills from Griffith Park to Point Mugu.

The action came after the owner of 10 acres overlooking two pristine canyons in western Malibu enlisted various powerful Chicago political figures, with whom he has close ties, in his fight against condemnation by the Park Service.

The key architect of the report and the park allocation, Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), acknowledged in an interview that the harassment accusations and condemnation limits grew out of his anger over Park Service efforts to force George Murphy Dunne Jr. to sell his ridge-top lot. Dunne wants to build a 2,100-square-foot house on the land.

An actor and musician, Dunne is the son of George Dunne, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners (Chicago's equivalent of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors) and Cook County Democratic chairman.

"I will tell you he's a friend of mine and his father . . . is a friend of mine," Yates said. "I've known him for many years."

Yates represents a Chicago lake front district. He also chairs the House Interior appropriations subcommittee, which drafts the House budget for the National Park Service.

But Yates said the small allocation was unrelated to the Park Service's handling of the Dunne case. He said the recreation area is one of many victims of the massive federal deficit.

Called a 'Disaster'

The new restrictions on condemnation "are a disaster," said Daniel R. Kuehn, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

In a memo to his supervisor, Kuehn wrote that "a signal has been sent that landowners may seek special political action to prevent (Park Service) acquisition."

Dunne's 10 acres, several miles inland from the Malibu beachfront, commands a sweeping view from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Channel Islands.

Below the cliff edge where Dunne hopes to build his house, the sheer walls of Zuma Canyon and the rounded folds of Trancas Canyon stretch to the sea. Already, the Park Service and the state own about 5,000 acres in the canyons. The service hopes to buy about 2,000 more.

Dunne's property, Kuehn said, would be an ideal spot for hikers who have traveled the canyons to rest, picnic and enjoy the spectacular vistas.

Seen as a 'Raw Deal'

"I can understand why Dan Kuehn would want it," Dunne said of his land. "But . . . I think I was getting a raw deal."

Former Dunne attorney Michael Woodward said a Park Service official told him in the late 1970s that the government was not interested in Dunne's land. Kuehn, who was not in the Santa Monicas at the time, said he understands the response was based simply on a lack of money.

Dunne spent more than five years seeking county and coastal permits, which he received in 1984. He said he asked Yates at the time to lobby for his coastal permit, but the congressman told him it was a state matter that he could not influence.

The Park Service did not offer an opinion about Dunne's coastal application when it was before the commission. The application escaped the staff's notice, according to Park Service memos.

After the permit was granted, the Park Service moved to condemn the land because construction was then possible, setting aside a $250,000 payment for Dunne. But because Dunne had not started building, the condemnation effort was stalled. Dunne said he thought his problems were over.

To keep his building permits from expiring, Dunne put up two retaining walls on the property in August.

The construction prompted Kuehn to revive the condemnation process. In early December, he got permission from National Park Service Director William Penn Mott Jr. to proceed with condemnation--the first in the Santa Monicas.

Dunne turned for help to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, another Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). Simon is currently a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.

Dunne said his father made no effort on his behalf. "He didn't need to," Dunne said. "I know them. I can call them. I met Dan Rostenkowski when I was in fourth grade. I was at my father's coattails. I was a precinct captain for a while in Chicago."

Dunne said he was desperate when he got in touch with the Illinois politicians. The California congressional delegation and officials of the Department of the Interior, which includes the Park Service, had been unable or unwilling to derail the condemnation, he said.

Started Making Calls

"I thought, what can I do now except making phone calls again, contacting people who are sympathetic?" he said.

Simon's staff gathered information about the support Dunne could expect from the Senate Interior appropriations subcommittee. "We made one phone call to check on the status, as a courtesy," said Simon press secretary Jim Killpatrick.

Rostenkowski had his staff discuss Dunne's case with National Park Service officials in Washington, and then referred Dunne to Yates.

"If we hadn't had Sidney (Yates) in such a good place, we might have gotten more involved," said a Rostenkowski aide who asked not to be identified by name.

Yates had a reputation as an important defender of the recreation area, which has often been criticized in Congress as a local playground subsidized by the nation's taxpayers.

Funding Compromise

In June, Yates' House subcommittee proposed earmarking $12 million for buying land in the Santa Monicas. The Senate, following what has become tradition, allocated nothing. The two houses usually compromise by giving the Santa Monicas at least half of the House appropriation.

Last year, for example, the House proposed $8 million and the Senate recommended no funding. The final allocation was $6 million.

But in late December, while the House and Senate were negotiating on the budget, Yates inserted the critical language, reduced the authority to condemn land there and agreed to a slash of $11 million in his subcommittee's June allocation.

The California delegation was "stunned," said Melissa Rice Kuckro, an aide to Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles). The vote on the floor could not be influenced because the allocation was part of a huge budget bill, she said.

Yates said his research on Dunne's case led him to conclude that Dunne "was being dealt with unfairly." He said he believed he should correct Dunne's situation and also protect other landowners in the Santa Monicas.

Provisions of Bill

The language in the budget bill report forbids the Park Service from acquiring Santa Monica Mountains land where a dwelling was constructed before Jan. 1, 1978--whether or not that house was still standing on that date. The original bill creating the recreation area referred only to existing homes.

A house on the Dunne property was destroyed by fire in the late 1950s. Dunne said the land was vacant when he bought it in the mid-1970s.

Still, Yates said, "If it was destroyed, they have a right along with the land to have it rebuilt . . . for Murphy Dunne and for everybody else."

Kuehn said it is unclear how many properties may be affected by the new definition. Robert Heagy, president of Concerned Citizens for Property Rights, a Santa Monicas landowners' group, said the change could apply to "several dozen at least, maybe hundreds."

State Decision Cited

Also in the budget report, Congress faulted the Park Service for failing to "give full consideration" to recommendations of state and local agencies.

In an interview, Yates said that a California Coastal Commission decision to grant a building permit should be considered a conclusion by the state that a home would not jeopardize the environment in the Santa Monicas.

"That's not the way to put a park together," said Nancy Ehorn, assistant superintendent for the Santa Monicas recreation area. "That means you can make assumptions that the existing zoning dictates where the parks will be."

For example, some land in Zuma and Trancas canyons is zoned to allow one house on every 20 acres, Ehorn said.

The impact of the $1-million allocation is more dramatic. The Park Service had hoped to buy the site of the annual Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which is located on more than 300 acres above Agoura. A developer is seeking permits to build 160 houses there.

The Park Service also hoped to make smaller purchases in Zuma and Trancas canyons, perhaps leading to another stretch of the Backbone Trail through the mountains being opened to the public.

Subcommittee member Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) said the reasons for the cutback in the allocation could be found in the report. The accusatory language and the condemnation restrictions were included, he said, "to convey some of the background of what we did" in earmarking money.

Yates, however, disagreed. "This was just not punitive," he said. "There is no truth to that at all. This year was a very tough year."

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