Battle Over a Dirt Road Complicates Park Plans : Santa Monica Mountains: The preserve may improve Valley access to the mountains. But some fear it would result in paving a section of Mulholland Drive and invite development.


The politics of pavement in the Santa Monica Mountains are complicating the planning of a 1,000-acre park on state land along Mulholland Drive overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

The new preserve, whose working name is Mulholland Gateway Park, has been stitched together from several parcels acquired from developers in recent years by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Featuring a large sandstone cave and panoramic views from the Mulholland crest, the proposed park is expected to improve visitor access from the Valley side of the Santa Monica Mountains.

But park planning, under way for several months, has become entangled in the emotional politics of the dirt portion of Mulholland--whose future is a matter of fierce debate among environmental and neighborhood groups.

As many as 300 residents are expected to tour the area next weekend as guests of the conservancy, a state parks agency. The free, guided tours are an effort to involve citizens in deciding what features the new park should include. Up to now, planners have heard mainly from local activists whose position on roads in the mountains shaped their views of what the park should be.

"It always boils down to a discussion of the roads," said Marcia McNally, a partner in Community Development by Design, the Berkeley-based firm that the conservancy hired to plan the park.

"There's no question this park is a pawn . . . in resolving a lot of other issues," McNally said.

The proposed park straddles Mulholland on the northern frontier of what planners call "The Big Wild"--a 16,000-acre wildlife area that includes 10,000-acre Topanga State Park and public lands at Encino Reservoir and in Rustic, Sullivan and Mission canyons.

At a minimum, the gateway park is likely to include trail markers and interpretive signs, trash cans and parking. It may also include restrooms, drinking water, a grassy picnic area, an equestrian staging area, an interpretive center with exhibits and maps, new trails and a bus drop-off area for visiting groups.

Although it is considerably east of the gateway park, planners are considering the old Nike missile site on Mulholland as a potential site for some of these amenities. Currently, the site, owned by the city of Los Angeles, bristles with radio antennas and rusting metal from the old missile installation. Although known as San Vicente Mountain Park, it was never developed as a recreation site. The conservancy is talking to the city about leasing or acquiring it.

McNally said a community workshop on design of the park will be scheduled in April, with the draft plan to be finished, it is hoped, in May.

The area already is visited by hikers and horsemen and those willing to risk their vehicles' suspensions on dirt Mulholland. On any weekend, mountain bikers and equestrians take in the scenery on Mulholland, while hikers cross over from the southern end of the Valley en route to the beach at Pacific Palisades or Trippett Ranch in Topanga State Park.

To some environmentalists and hillside residents of Tarzana, this shows that the park already gets substantial public use and should be left the way it is. They argue that the property is really an extension of Topanga State Park and does not need a separate name or development plan. The more developed the park is, the more likely it will require paving of access roads or parts of Mulholland itself. This, in turn, would encourage housing tracts or even trash dumps in currently inaccessible areas of the mountains, say those who favor minimal park development.

On the other hand, some Encino hillside residents want road improvements as part of the park to solve a neighborhood problem. Some of these homeowners--banded together as the Encino Traffic Safety Committee--are essentially pinned in their driveways at rush hour by cars traveling neighborhood streets to paved Mulholland and the San Diego Freeway.

The traffic safety committee wants Mulholland paved to the West Valley to siphon San Diego Freeway-bound traffic away from Hayvenhurst Avenue. If the new park includes some paving, the group believes, it would be financially and politically easier for the city to finish the job of converting Mulholland into a paved thoroughfare.

Others argue that the park should provide for people who don't ride or hike but who still want to enjoy the mountains.

These conflicting agendas are only one complication. Another is that the conservancy, despite planning and developing the park, won't be operating it over the long haul.

The conservancy acquires parkland but leaves its management to other agencies, such as the state Department of Parks and Recreation or the National Park Service. In this case, the property is likely to be turned over to state park officials to manage with neighboring Topanga State Park.

For that reason, the planning consultants are working with state park officials to ensure they will be happy with the park's design.

"We are concerned that we must budget to provide the staff and the equipment . . . as a result of the public coming into that area," said Dan Preece, district superintendent for the state parks department. "We continue to participate in their planning to make sure that they design trails and facilities . . . in accordance with our standards," he said.

"There's nothing that will come out of that plan that is not approved by state parks," said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy.


Free tours of the proposed Mulholland Gateway Park in the mountains overlooking the San Fernando Valley will be given Saturday and Sunday.

The three-hour guided tours of the proposed 1,000-acre park will be hosted by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, owner of the property, and its planning consultant, Community Development by Design.

The proposed park, which abuts Topanga State Park, includes a large sandstone cave and sweeping views from the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Visitors will be transported in vans and must reserve space no later than Thursday. The reservations number is 1-800-533-PARK.

Tours at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. will be conducted both days. Vans will leave from Wilbur Avenue Elementary School, 5213 Crebs Ave. in Tarzana. Participants are asked to car-pool as there is limited parking at the school.

Participants should wear sturdy shoes and comfortable clothing.

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