A proposed land exchange that could trigger construction of a huge housing development and golf course at the edge of the federal Cheeseboro Canyon park has stirred deep concern among National Park Service staff members, with some privately voicing strong objections to the deal.
The proposed swap between the Park Service and Potomac Investment Associates "is clearly not in the public interest" and "should never even be entertained by the Park Service," said one Park Service staff member who would not speak if identified. Another said the proposal makes it look "like we're in bed with the developers. . . . Personally, I'm embarrassed."
Under terms of the exchange, the Park Service would get 864 acres for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in exchange for 59 acres, gaining far more scenic lands than it would have to give up.
However, Potomac, a big development firm based in Gaithersburg, Md., would use the 59 acres in lower Cheeseboro Canyon to bring a four-lane road to the landlocked Jordan Ranch, where it wants to build 1,152 houses and a tournament-play golf course. Without the access, Potomac would probably have to scale back its plans.
The land swap has been endorsed in the past by the Park Service's western regional director and by the last two superintendents of the national recreation area. But agency officials recently proclaimed neutrality pending completion of an environmental impact statement.
The land exchange sought by Potomac has come under harsh attack from some homeowners and environmentalists, including the Wilderness Society, a national environmental group. But, until now, no criticism had emerged publicly from recreation-area headquarters in Agoura Hills, where employees said they have been told not to comment.
Five of nine Park Service staff members who were interviewed by The Times said the exchange should be rejected, and three others had reservations about the deal but said they would not rule it out. The Park Service has 48 permanent and about 10 seasonal employees assigned to the Agoura Hills headquarters.
The opponents said the exchange would trigger massive development, damaging the Park Service's existing Cheeseboro Canyon holdings. Moreover, the Park Service would be writing off preservation of the Jordan Ranch, which is designated for purchase as parkland in the recreation area's plans.
"I think it looks real bad for the Park Service, to tell you the truth," one employee said. "Our main statement of what we're supposed to do is to protect and preserve the resources."
Approving the exchange would give "the impression that the Park Service . . . condones these developments and approves them," said another member of the Park Service staff.
Others said they would not categorically reject the trade because it might be the best that the Park Service can do.
"I just wouldn't automatically say that the land exchange is out of the question," one said. Although he would "feel betrayed" if it turned out that the exchange was politically motivated, he said he is "not as outraged as some of the members of the staff because I want to see what actually happens."
Supporters of the exchange say it would protect significant areas of the Jordan Ranch while freeing acquisition dollars for other tracts in the Santa Monicas.
David E. Gackenbach, superintendent of the mountain park, said it is inappropriate for staff members to condemn the proposed exchange "when they're not involved in it enough to comment intelligently."
He also questioned how critics could know that the exchange is "not in the public's best interest" before completion of the environmental impact statement later this year.
Highlighting the political sensitivity of the issue, two assistant secretaries of the Department of the Interior have toured the Cheeseboro and Jordan Ranch tracts since the beginning of the year.
Created by Congress in 1978, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area covers a 150,000-acre expanse of public parks and private lands extending from Griffith Park in Los Angeles to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County. The Park Service has purchased 16,450 acres, or only 11% of the area, but extensive holdings are also in state and county parks.
Cheeseboro Canyon and Jordan Ranch are parallel fingers of land at the northern edge of the recreation area north of Agoura Hills.
Cheeseboro, home to centuries-old oaks and abundant wildlife, is a 2,150-acre tract that the Park Service bought for $13 million.
The 2,408-acre Jordan Ranch, owned by entertainer Bob Hope, is under option to Potomac for an undisclosed price. The tract includes oak-studded Palo Comado Canyon and China Flat, a scenic expanse of upland meadows thick with oaks and rocky outcrops.
Under the land-protection plan for the recreation area, all of Jordan Ranch would be acquired and preserved by the Park Service and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state parks agency. But the value of the property might be $20 million to $30 million, and Hope is not a willing seller.
Potomac proposes to build 1,152 houses and a Professional Golf Assn. golf course, which would require moving 14.5 million cubic feet of earth.
A wild card in the plan is what Ventura County will do about Potomac's request for significant zoning concessions. The property is zoned open space, which requires a minimum lot size of 160 acres and would allow only 14 estates on the entire property. Potomac needs a change to urban zoning densities and also an exemption from slope-development limits in order to develop the land under its plan.
But, even with urban zoning, Potomac would lack adequate road access for a large-scale development, which is where the Park Service land comes in.
In return for the 59 acres in lower Cheeseboro Canyon, Potomac would deed the Park Service 864 acres of Jordan Ranch and would sell an additional 306 acres to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for $2 million. This acreage includes some steep upland areas that could not be developed anyway, as well as the scenic, and developable, China Flat.
Potomac would also supply up to $1 million for a headquarters and visitor center for the recreation area and would give parking revenue from PGA golf tournaments to the mountain park.
Critics, within and outside the Park Service, contend that the offer isn't as generous as it sounds. They argue that, by dint of its size, the development would reduce the value of Cheeseboro Canyon as a recreation and wildlife habitat and also harm the new lands coming into public ownership. They also argue that Potomac has no choice but to leave substantial acreage in open space--because of steep slopes and to offset environmental damage.
"The largest-scale development that could happen could only happen through that land-exchange process," said one member of the Park Service staff. "It just doesn't seem that it's in the best interest of the mission of the National Park Service to do anything that would maximize development."
The population growth on Cheeseboro's flank would also increase the risk of a road being carved through the heart of the canyon, another Park Service staff member argued. Los Angeles County has an easement to extend Thousand Oaks Boulevard through Cheeseboro Canyon, and a big boost in traffic flow could help justify the road, the employee said.
But Gackenbach said the critics have no way of knowing which parts of Jordan Ranch will remain open space if the trade isn't made--or whether that open space will be accessible to the public. If the Park Service rejects the exchange or if Ventura County denies the zoning and Potomac has to settle for a smaller project, it might concentrate development on scenic China Flat, Gackenbach said.
Peter Kyros, general partner for Potomac, agreed. "When a government agency can swap 59 for 800" acres, he said, "they ought to be going around to people like me and saying, 'Let's try to do it.' "
Kyros, an attorney and son of a former Democratic congressman from Maine, is one of several politically well-connected members of the Potomac team. A former aide to Vice President Walter F. Mondale, whom he described as a friend and mentor, Kyros is also a friend of Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), who chairs a House Interior subcommittee with oversight of the Park Service.
Potomac has also retained the law firm of Elliot Cutler, a top official in the Office of Management and Budget during the Carter Administration, and the Washington public relations firm of James Lake, who was a campaign aide to President Reagan.
It took political reach to put the land swap on the table in the first place. When the issue was first raised in 1987, the developers were rebuffed by former recreation-area Supt. Dan Kuehn and Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Susan Recce.
But William Horn, assistant Interior secretary, told them to reconsider after getting a letter in which a lawyer for the PGA Tour, which would run the golf course, mentioned the name of former Interior Secretary William P. Clark three times. The lawyer, William Fairfield, is Clark's former legal partner.
Kuehn then began negotiating with Potomac and endorsed the exchange when Potomac offered up 864 acres.
"All we ever sought was an opportunity to make our case," Kyros said.