Conservation Hurts if It Hits Home : Parkland: Residents face losing their own wild canyon as part of the Fryman Canyon land swap.
Last January, Kurt Toppel thought the arrangement that enabled the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to acquire Fryman Canyon in the Hollywood Hills for parkland was a good idea.
But now that he and others in a secluded Pacific Palisades neighborhood have learned that a 5.5-acre piece of wilderness in their own Marquez Canyon is part of the price tag, they have a different view.
“Our canyon is being sacrificed because (the city of Los Angeles) chose to work a deal someplace else,” said Toppel, president of the 400-member Marquez Knolls Neighborhood Assn. “We don’t think we should be asked to pay the price.”
Opponents acknowledge that it may be too late to thwart the sale of the property, but have pledged to fight its development “tooth and nail.”
Any zoning change would need the approval of Los Angeles officials. In addition, Marquez Canyon lies within the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission, which would have final authority over any future development there.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which acquired the land in March from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as part of the complicated arrangement to finance the Fryman Canyon purchase, is now trying to sell it.
As of a deadline Monday, the agency had received three bids, including one from an apparent benefactor who expressed interest in buying the property and donating it as parkland on the condition that it remain undeveloped.
The other bidders were a private school that is interested in relocating from elsewhere in Pacific Palisades and a developer who wants to build single-family houses there, said Clark King, the conservancy’s deputy director.
King said the potential benefactor is someone whose home is near the canyon, but added that, as of Wednesday, conservancy officials had been unable to contact the individual.
He declined to disclose the identities of the bidders or how much was offered for the land, saying that the conservancy’s board will probably decide which, if any, of the bids it accepts at a public meeting in Pacific Palisades on Aug. 19.
The property is now zoned to allow up to five single-family houses to be built there. But with the conservancy having set $2 million as the minimum bid, neighbors fear that would-be developers will almost certainly seek a zoning change to accommodate a more intensive, traffic-generating use, such as a school or church. And that, they insist, would ruin the serenity in their neighborhood of million-dollar homes.
“It never occurred to me that they would be swapping our canyon to help pay for another canyon,” said Margaret Goff, who has lived beside Marquez Canyon for 21 years. “I’m sure they feel Fryman is a top priority. But we think Marquez is a top priority.”
In acquiring 63-acre Fryman Canyon for $10.4 million--$1.7 million above its appraised value--the City Council in January approved a controversial transfer of four city-owned properties to the developer who had wanted to build in Fryman Canyon.
The developer, Fred Sahadi, had wanted to massively grade Fryman Canyon, situated in the hills above Studio City, and build 26 luxury homes there.
The conservancy, a state agency whose officials had complained that the price was too high, nonetheless was persuaded to come up with $8.7 million, in addition to the $1.7-million worth of city-owned properties the City Council voted to give Sahadi as part of the deal.
To raise its share of the money, the agency took $2 million from a trust fund earmarked for park improvements in Temescal Canyon, also in Pacific Palisades. As part of the deal, the DWP transferred the 5.5 acres in Marquez Canyon to the conservancy. Proceeds from the sale are to be used to reimburse the trust fund.
“Somebody in all of this had to get hurt, and it looks like they want it to be us,” said Charles Beck, whose home overlooks Marquez Canyon and who heads Canyon Conscious Residents, a group that has pledged to fight any plan to develop it.
Beck likened the Fryman Canyon deal to a tube of toothpaste, adding, “you squeeze it in one place, and something bad pops out someplace else.”
Critics of the Marquez Canyon sale complain that despite the City Council’s approval in January of the controversial arrangement, they only learned several weeks ago that Marquez would be affected.
They insist that the Fryman Canyon deal never should have been struck, and that the conservancy should not be swapping one undeveloped canyon for another.
Beck also faulted Councilman Marvin Braude, who represents Pacific Palisades, for “being asleep at the wheel” in not protecting the canyon from potential development. Braude voted with the council majority to approve the Fryman Canyon acquisition.
At a community gathering Saturday that drew about 400 Marquez Knolls residents, Braude defended his support of the Fryman Canyon purchase, but many Marquez residents were unimpressed.
“We wanted to hear him say our canyon would be protected,” said one resident, who did not want to be identified. “Instead, it was like trying to nail a piece of pudding to the wall. There was little to hang on to.”
Cindy Miscikowski, an aide to Braude, said that because of Marquez Canyon’s small size and relative inaccessibility, state officials have never given high priority to the idea of acquiring it for parkland.
Marquez Canyon consists of about 20 acres just north of Sunset Boulevard and east of Palisades Drive. Only about 7.5 acres in the bottom, long held by DWP as surplus property, is considered suitable for development. The department has retained two acres for a potential electricity substation.
Some residents have expressed concern about the private school’s interest in building in the canyon, saying it will bring more traffic to the neighborhood north of Sunset Boulevard.
There are three elementary schools--one public and two private--in the neighborhood.
A conservancy spokeswoman, although sympathetic to opponents of the Marquez Canyon sale, said, “If funds were no object, it would be ideal to acquire all of the undeveloped canyon lands that have been identified as possible parkland.”
Julie Zeidner, the spokeswoman, defended the conservancy’s attempt to sell the land, saying that in making the acquisition of Fryman Canyon a priority, Los Angeles officials set the priority for which properties would be sold or exchanged.
“Land acquired for parkland in one place often affects land someplace else,” she said. “Unfortunately, the resources aren’t there to acquire it all.”