Paradise Found : Acquisition Will Preserve 556-Acre Roberts Ranch in Malibu

Times Staff Writer

The spectacular views from the Santa Monica Mountains above the coast of Malibu offer a glimpse into a basic conflict of modern urban society.

When developers see the view, their mouths water. When environmentalists see the view, their eyes water.

For decades, while the two forces fought over the future of Malibu, housing developments slowly began appearing in the lush canyons, and long stretches of open beaches were replaced by restaurants, gift shops and exclusive private homes.


But recently, local conservationists announced that they had retained a portion of Malibu that has remained largely untouched since the Civil War: The Trust for Public Lands, a statewide organization of environmentalists, has purchased the remaining 345 acres of the 556-acre Roberts Ranch in Malibu’s Solstice Canyon and plans to open the property to the public in June.

“Being there is like going back in time,” said Bill Dempsey, project manager for the trust. “It’s a spectacular place . . . it’s just amazing that it has remained undeveloped.”

The acquisition by the San Francisco-based trust, which buys private land for public use, marks the end of a seven-year struggle to save the pristine property from development. Dempsey said the canyon area likely will become the most heavily used recreation area in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Early last year, The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy bought 211 acres of the lower canyon for about $2.5 million. To block developers from acquiring pieces of the 345-acre property, the conservancy, the Sierra Club and the trust put up a $250,000 option on the remaining land.

In October, Gov. George Deukmejian signed into law a bill that set aside about $20 million in state tideland oil revenues, including $1.4 million that the mountains conservancy funneled to the trust to purchase the property. The trust put together $1.6 million from other sources to make the $3 million-acquisition this month.

Dempsey said the land will be managed by the conservancy but owned by the trust until the cash-strapped state agency can raise enough money to purchase the land. The conservancy hopes to buy the remaining land from the trust later this year, but the sale depends on whether the state can get additional money for public park acquisition.


The 556-acre Roberts Ranch boasts mountain scenery, several campground areas and a stream that runs year-round. The land runs from the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains to within several hundred yards of Corral Beach and Dan Blocker State Beach in Malibu.

Environmental groups consider the land acquisition a major victory. The property is insulated from the traffic congestion along the Pacific Coast Highway and is hidden from most of the custom homes that have been built above Corral Canyon to the east. It is one of the last major tracts of undeveloped land in an area often called the last vestige of wilderness in Los Angeles County.

Protected behind a locked wooden gate, the ranch is being renovated for its public debut June 19--to mark the summer solstice. Ruth Kilday, executive director of the Conservancy Foundation, the group that manages the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy park lands, said the foundation is spending $150,000 to refurbish the site.

When the work is completed, park officials say, hikers will be able to trek from the beach to a 1,500-foot mountain ridge and cross through a series of side canyons.

Workers from the California Conservation Corps have cleared the stream and installed a water tank for fire protection. Officials from the state Fish and Game Department are studying the possibility of reintroducing steelhead trout to the creek.

“It’s one of the most diverse canyons in the mountains,” Kilday said. “When it was under private ownership, it contained several small lakes for fishing.”

The site provides a glimpse of life in Malibu 130 years ago, when the entire coastal area was owned by Don Mateo Keller, an Irish immigrant who bought much of the land for $1 per acre. Keller’s 1857 stone house, the oldest in Malibu, still stands there, as does a caretaker’s cottage built in the 1930s.

The cottage, which now serves as the Conservancy Foundation’s headquarters, was renovated recently, part of which is a mini-museum that includes photographs documenting the ranch’s history.

On a nearby hillside, three buildings are being reconstructed that represent another chapter in the Solstice Canyon story. The structures, all 35 feet tall, are being renovated to include a park ranger’s station, offices and a conference room. Kilday said that the conservancy is considering using a portion of a circular silo for a European-style youth hostel.

But 25 years ago, the building served more as a center for high-technology than a capsule of local history. At the time, it was used as a laboratory to test payloads for space shots for TRW Inc. and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Kilday said the aerospace firms picked the site because they needed a “non-magnetic setting,” or an area far removed from telephone lines and electrical cables. One of the buildings had a removable roof so that heavy equipment could be lifted from the structure.

Dempsey said that the purchase of the property is a “very, very risky endeavor” for the trust because there are no guarantees that the state will be able to get the money to buy back the property. Several coastal district legislators are now trying to find the resources so the conservancy can purchase the remainder of the ranch from the trust.

“We’re hopeful that the money will come through, which is why we were willing to assume the risk,” Dempsey said. “Because the property has been so sought-after by developers, we had to pay the full market price. And $3 million is a lot of money to an agency like ours.

“But there’s no doubt that the land is worth it. When you’re up there looking out at the coast, it feels like you’re in another world.”