After a lengthy debate, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has postponed action on a proposal to forbid its top executive to engage in unauthorized lobbying in favor of developers who agree to sell or give land for public parks.
By a 5-2 vote, conservancy board members Monday delayed a vote on restrictions aimed at Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston, who has drawn criticism from homeowners, environmentalists and other public officials recently for promoting developments in Malibu, Calabasas and Ventura County.
Board members agreed to reconsider the matter at a meeting Jan. 22. If the guidelines are approved, Edmiston would be required to obtain formal approval from the conservancy’s board before publicly promoting a development project in exchange for a gift or sale of parklands.
The conservancy is a state agency that buys land for parks in the Santa Monica Mountains and foothills surrounding the San Fernando Valley.
Some board members were upset when Edmiston testified before the state Coastal Commission last month in favor of a 26-residence luxury development in Malibu’s Corral Canyon. In turn, the project’s developer promised to sell 320 acres in the canyon to the conservancy for about $9 million.
The project was a key element in a massive land sale and swap in which entertainer Bob Hope would transfer 5,700 acres to government park agencies for a below-market $10 million. Edmiston has strongly supported that deal.
However, the Coastal Commission rejected the Corral project, saying it would damage an environmentally sensitive plant and wildlife habitat. During the hearing, one coastal commissioner rebuked Edmiston, saying: “To get this far in bed with a developer like this makes me sick.”
Some conservancy board members complained that an environmental consultant hired by the agency without their approval told the Coastal Commission the Potomac Investment Associates project would cause only minimal ecological damage.
Conservancy Chairwoman Carole B. Stevens said that after the project was vetoed by the Coastal Commission, Edmiston was quoted in several newspapers as saying the conservancy’s top acquisition target was now Blind Canyon, in the Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth.
But the board had not approved that position, either, she said.
However, David Green, a member of the conservancy’s advisory board, said he opposed any action that would prevent Edmiston--whom admirers regard as a brilliant land-buying strategist--from moving quickly to conclude deals when opportunity arises.
Green said the conservancy’s success in acquiring land is due in large part to its ability “to step in and make a quick deal.” Since 1980, the agency has been involved in financing the purchase of nearly 11,000 acres--more than twice as much as the state Department of Parks and Recreation acquired in the same period.
If occasional communications problems between Edmiston and the board are “the price we have to pay for the ability to move quickly and decisively, it’s a price I’ll pay any day,” he said.
The board agreed to appoint a subcommittee at its next meeting to study the proposed restrictions. A final vote is not expected until at least late February.