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Sen. Torres Pushes Reluctant Officials to Buy L.A. Acreage for State Parkland

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Times Staff Writer

For reasons he will not discuss, state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) is trying to engineer the state’s purchase of a steep hillside for parkland in the Hollywood Hills, even though state and local park officials are cool toward it.

Every year since 1986, Torres has inserted $2 million in the state budget bill so that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy can buy the 20-acre property. This year, before passage in June of Proposition 70--the state parks bond issue--Torres had asked the conservancy to earmark $2 million of its $30-million share of bond funds for the land.

‘Political Logrolling’

But Torres, whose district includes Commerce, Maywood and Bell Gardens, received an equivocal reply from the conservancy’s executive director, Joe Edmiston, who argued for flexibility instead of “political logrolling” in deciding what to buy.

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Privately, some officials are less diplomatic. The agency is being “force-fed this piece of property,” another conservancy official said. “We have much better things to do in this agency than buy that piece of land.”

The property is owned by John H. Karns, 50, a lawyer in the Los Angeles firm of Karns & Karabian. His partner, Walter J. Karabian, 50, is a former Assembly majority leader who remains an active fund-raiser and is influential in the Democratic Party.

Reason for Interest Unknown

The reason for Torres’ interest in the purchase is not known. He did not return repeated telephone calls over a period of five weeks, then told a reporter earlier this month when approached at a meeting in Sacramento that he would not discuss the subject. Nor did Karns or Karabian return calls.

Dario Frommer, Torres’ press spokesman, said several weeks ago that Torres was pushing for the land purchase because the conservancy “asked him to.” Edmiston said this was not true and that the proposal came from Torres.

Bob Morales, Torres’ chief of staff, acknowledged that Torres knows Karns and Karabian and “knows that they’ve been active in political circles for a number of years.” He said he did not know details of the proposal.

Torres’ aide, Beth Bonbright, who has worked directly for the purchase, acknowledged discussing it with Karns. She said she did not know where the idea came from.

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Bonbright said neither she nor Torres has ever seen the land, which is not in his 24th Senate District. She said she did not know and had not asked how the $2-million price tag was established. “I assume that’s the value of the land,” she said.

Appraisal First

Bonbright said, however, that the state appraises land before buying it and does not pay more than appraised value. Thus, she said, the state would pay $2 million only if the land were worth that much.

The parcel is west of Runyon Canyon Park, a city park above Hollywood Boulevard. The park was acquired in 1984 by the city of Los Angeles for $5.16 million, most of it a grant from the conservancy.

The 133-acre Runyon Canyon had been the estate of millionaire owners, including A & P heir Huntington Hartford. It includes remnants of gardens and a pool house once used by Errol Flynn, along with uninhabited ravines and chaparral slopes.

The Karns property has little potential as a site for houses, according to three city planners, because most of it is in a steeply sloping canyon split by a big power line. The conservancy, a state agency that buys parkland in the Santa Monicas and the hills around the San Fernando Valley, generally is most interested in getting land that might otherwise soon be developed.

$2 Million Price Questioned

Michael Davies, one of the city planners, said there is “no way in the world” the parcel could be worth $2 million.

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The $2 million in the budget bills and Torres’ letter to Edmiston works out to $100,000 an acre. It is 16 times the $125,000 that county tax records say Karns paid for the parcel in 1977.

In 1986, the city Recreation and Parks Commission approved a master plan for the unique but neglected park, which had become a haven for drug users and the homeless. The plan called for a cleanup and such physical improvements as a ranger station. It recommended buying a small private parcel surrounded by the park and a four-acre ridge that is part of the Karns land.

In April, 1986, after the master plan was approved, City Councilman Michael Woo wrote to city park officials that he knew of “a private party” who was asking $2 million for 20 acres adjoining the park.

Triple Price Elsewhere

James E. Hadaway, general manager for the Recreation and Parks Department, questioned the $2-million price, nearly triple what the city had paid on a per-acre basis for the more desirable and developable Runyon Canyon tract. Hadaway said other improvements were of higher priority than the Karns tract.

Woo apparently dropped the matter there. In an interview, he said he had merely agreed to sign a letter prepared for him by an aide, who has since left his staff. Woo said he did not know if the aide was contacted by Karns, Karabian or someone else.

No Discussion

Woo also said he never discussed the subject with Torres.

The legislator inserted the $2 million in the legislative budget in 1986 and in 1987, although Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed it both years.

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This year Torres introduced legislation to force the conservancy to buy the land with the Proposition 70 bond money.

He also wrote asking Edmiston in April if the conservancy would “be willing to designate $2 million of the $30 million . . . for the purchase of the specific 20 acres in question.”

Edmiston replied that he hoped lawmakers would appropriate the $30 million “in a lump sum” so the conservancy could do its job “without political logrolling.”

Negotiations Sought

Edmiston also promised to “sit down with the owner of the Runyon Canyon parcel and attempt to work out an acquisition that is fair to all parties.”

In an interview, Edmiston described his letter as a failed attempt to talk Torres out of a requirement that the conservancy buy the tract. He said that in referring to “political logrolling” he was “sending a message.”

“It was easy not to pick a fight with a powerful senator,” Edmiston said. “Obviously, offending legislators is the first thing an agency head ought not to do, just because, if for no other reason, they’re elected, and you’re not.”

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Hope Fulfilled

In the final Proposition 70 appropriation, the lawmakers did as Edmiston hoped they would and made no specific purchases mandatory.

In a 1988 letter similar to one he has been sending to legislative committees for three years, Torres said: “The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and The Runyon Canyon Community list the acquisition of this specific 20 acres among their top priorities.” Each time he has referred to the “Runyon Canyon Community” and declared that it and the conservancy want the “specific 20 acres.”

No organization called the Runyon Canyon Community could be located. One called the Friends of Runyon Canyon, which lobbies for improvements in the park, is interested only in the acquisition of the ridge, according to Elisabeth Clark, who chairs the group. She said she was not aware of the proposal herself and knew of no community support for it.

A May, 1988, conservancy list of “high-priority projects adopted for 1988 parkland bond funds” includes buying 40 acres to add to Runyon Canyon Park, including the small parcel it already surrounds. It does not specifically identify the Karns property.

Edmiston said the conservancy wants the western ridgeline, which is four of Karns’ 20 acres, and some land east of the park. The figure of 40 acres, he said, was loosely arrived at.

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