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COLUMN ONE : Striking Deals for Parkland : Joseph Edmiston has aggressively acquired more than 17,000 acres for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. But critics say he compromises with developers too readily.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before Joseph T. Edmiston became the point man for expanding public parklands in the Santa Monica Mountains, he was a young law student with a part-time job as a process server.

His targets often were men refusing to pay their bills, and Edmiston developed a sly tactic for flushing them out. He would ring the doorbell and announce that he was having an affair with the deadbeat’s wife.

“They knew, these guys. I had people behind the door saying: ‘Ah, you’re just a process server,’ ” he said. But none could resist opening up for a closer look at the self-professed home-wrecker--giving Edmiston just enough room to serve a summons.

Now 42, Edmiston insists he abandoned such underhanded methods years ago. But he has lost none of his boldness as head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the state agency that acquires land for parks in the spectacular range in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

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In 11 years as the conservancy’s executive director, he has struck deals with developers and Hollywood stars, outmaneuvered fellow bureaucrats and enlisted powerful political allies to preserve thousands of mountain acres. In the process, he has won a reputation as Southern California’s most innovative parks official, and the most aggressive.

Even detractors acknowledge Edmiston’s remarkable success at enlarging parklands in the Santa Monicas and nearby foothills. Since its inception in 1980, the conservancy has acquired more than 17,000 acres, an area about half the size of San Francisco.

But the quick victories of the 1980s have given way to protracted battles in the 1990s. Escalating land prices, competition from other buyers and a chronic cash shortage have made Edmiston’s job increasingly difficult.

Now he is struggling to hold together his biggest deal ever: a complex exchange involving entertainer Bob Hope that would produce the largest single addition to California’s park system in 30 years, more than 10,000 acres.

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Under the current version of the plan, Hope would sell and donate thousands of acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties for public open space. In return, the federal government would give national parkland to a developer for a road to Hope’s secluded Jordan Ranch in Ventura County. That access would allow luxury homes to be built on the land, which government park authorities have sought to acquire for years.

The plan has met furious opposition from Ventura County officials and some environmentalists. In recent secret negotiations, Edmiston and others have sought to achieve the same ends without any surrender of national park land.

Edmiston personally has come under fire for his role in promoting the Hope land swap and another luxury-home development in Calabasas. In both cases, he switched hats and acted as a lobbyist for the builders before regulatory bodies.

Edmiston argues that he was guaranteeing parks for areas where development is inevitable. His critics say such deals are Faustian bargains that compromise the conservancy and promote growth far in excess of zoning limits.

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“He’s singing the developers’ song,” said Mary Wiesbrock, leader of Save Open Space, a group of environmentalists and homeowners opposed to the Hope swap.

In dealing with developers, Edmiston brings considerable power to the table. If the conservancy chooses to fight a project, it can sue on environmental grounds. It can also bid against builders for choice land or seize it through governmental condemnation.

But Edmiston can be an influential ally to the same developers, stamping a project as environmentally acceptable.

Bearded, bass-voiced and built like a beer barrel, Edmiston is a shrewd, cerebral man who attended USC on a debate scholarship and learned his political skills as a young Sierra Club organizer.

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Appointed to head the conservancy by then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Edmiston has close connections to the Los Angeles political organization headed by U.S. Reps. Howard L. Berman and Henry A. Waxman, both liberal Democrats. Berman’s district includes part of the mountains. As a state assemblyman he sponsored legislation creating the conservancy.

Edmiston “has literally wheeled and dealed to save critical parcels over and over again,” Berman said. “He has the talents of a very good real estate developer, but on behalf of conservation.”

Edmiston is sometimes compared to Robert Moses, the powerful New York parks and public works commissioner whose political career began during World War I and spanned six decades. A master of bureaucratic gamesmanship, Moses built hundreds of parks, playgrounds and highways throughout New York State before being stripped of power by then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Like Moses, Edmiston is a gifted bureaucratic chess player.

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Beginning in late 1989, he effectively checked a move by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts to pave the way for a garbage dump in scenic Towsley Canyon near Santa Clarita. After the disposal agency optioned land in the canyon, Edmiston bought two other parcels, including one at the canyon’s mouth that neatly blocked the best truck access.

He publicly insisted the purchases were merely the first step in putting together a state park. But the acreage he bought was described by landfill engineers as “the only feasible access way from the Golden State Freeway to the potential landfill area.”

Edmiston also displayed considerable wiliness when he engineered a “raid” on another state agency’s budget in 1986.

The 1,655-acre Circle X Ranch, a rugged tract northwest of Malibu, had unexpectedly gone on sale. Fearing that the property would be used for housing, Edmiston began searching for ways to buy it.

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The conservancy did not have the $5.85 million price. But Edmiston found the money in the budget of the State Coastal Conservancy, a sister agency that finances construction of beach accessways, farmland conservation and other projects along the coast.

Edmiston persuaded then-Assemblyman Gray Davis, the conservancy’s closest ally in the Legislature’s lower house, to line up votes. To win over other lawmakers, he packed their staff members into a Jeep and drove them through the ranch, extolling its beauty.

By the time he was done, the Legislature had in effect ordered the Coastal Conservancy to lend the money to the Mountains Conservancy.

“We were quite disturbed and said so,” said Peter Grenell, the Coastal Conservancy’s executive officer. “It was a good project, but . . . we have 1,100 miles of coast to deal with, and suddenly a gigantic piece of our budget was not available to our staff.”

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Edmiston argues that preservation of the Santa Monicas more than justifies such maneuvers. The mountains, he said, are a unique resource where harried city-dwellers can retreat into nature’s serenity.

He maintains that the mountains can absorb some well-designed housing projects. But in fighting to buy parkland he has adamantly opposed new landfills in the Santa Monicas and foothills ringing the San Fernando Valley, saying they are environmentally ruinous.

Edmiston draws a distinction between himself and those he calls “pure environmentalists"--people who think humans should be kept out of the Santa Monicas as much as possible. By contrast, he believes the mountains’ real value lies in their ability to “ennoble” people by putting them in direct contact with nature.

To Berman and others who appreciate the art of pragmatic politics, Edmiston is an admirable figure among environmentalists, a refreshing change from ideologues who would rather lose than compromise.

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“He is very smart, very shrewd, very aggressive and a deeply committed environmentalist,” said Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), a close ally. “And he has the political skill and ability to carry out his convictions.”

But some conservationists deeply mistrust Edmiston’s familiarity with power and the powerful.

“His job is not so much saving the mountains as it is keeping the developers happy, because developers represent power. And he’s a man fundamentally oriented toward power,” said Siegfried Othmer, a Sherman Oaks physicist who frequently speaks for Save Open Space.

“This is a steppingstone for him. He’s probably expecting a nice job under the Wilson Administration.”

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Edmiston, a Democrat, said he would turn down any offer from the Republican governor.

To predictions he will run for public office, he replied: “I won’t say I’ll never run for office. If I ever did run, it would be after I’d gone off and done something else.”

Edmiston is on the phone to a state lawyer, his voice getting louder by the moment. The topic: how to structure a complicated, multimillion-dollar deal in which a landowner will sell Fryman Canyon above Studio City to the conservancy and the city of Los Angeles.

“Don’t you give the store away on the $2 million!” Edmiston says, almost shouting into the receiver. “We need to make the right deal! So let’s not get so deal-crazy here!”

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For Edmiston, deal-making is serious business. In meetings with developers, he sometimes uses a wrist calculator to figure per-acre land prices.

“If there’s a possible deal to make, I have a genetic defect that forces me to do it,” he said, grinning.

Edmiston is not currently working on any deals that would require him to support a housing development. He described the conservancy’s governing board as increasingly confrontational with builders. “In the developments that are forthcoming, I don’t see any compromises . . . that would get the approval of our board.”

But he argues that for a small, under-financed agency like his, dealing with developers can be a pragmatic way to acquire parks in the Santa Monicas, where eye-popping views and a rural flavor are strong lures for builders.

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The conservancy must cut such deals, he argues, because local planning authorities lack the gumption to force developers to turn over land for parks as a condition of getting projects approved.

He wrote in 1989 to Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica): “I can think of nothing more futile than sitting patiently through the elongated local planning process, waiting hat in hand for local officials to deign to recognize that the soon-to-be-largest metropolitan area in the country needs some public open space.

“If that means sometimes striking an early (and better) deal with a developer . . . then so be it.”

Such aggressive tactics are necessary, he said, because after 11 years of acquisitions the “easy buys” are behind the conservancy.

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Not only is land increasingly expensive, but the conservancy finds itself competing with other potential buyers, public and private.

Furthermore, land cannot be acquired without money. Edmiston, like many bureaucrats, often complains about a lack of it.

True to form, he has developed a way to get it outside regular channels in Sacramento--sometimes making environmentalists uncomfortable in the process.

He does it by throwing the conservancy’s weight behind political campaigns for park-related bond issues that set aside money for it.

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The strategy has provided spectacular windfalls to the conservancy. Of the $40.2 million it has spent on land since 1985, bonds have generated $32.2 million.

Edmiston ruffled some environmentalists’ feathers with his campaigning for one such issue, Proposition 70 in 1988.

He invited more than 50 people to a fund-raiser at his home, many of them representatives of small, nonprofit environmental groups that had applied for conservancy grants.

According to two people who attended, Edmiston urged those present to persuade their organizations to donate money to qualify the measure for the ballot. Groups that did, he was quoted as saying, would be first in line to get new conservancy grants if the proposition passed.

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“He never said: ‘You’re not going to get a grant unless you donate $1,000,’ ” said one person who was present. “What he said was: ‘I’m going to be looking to those organizations that gave money when I dollop out money in the future.’ ”

Edmiston denied making such a statement. He said he was simply making the point that conservancy grants to 15 organizations, rebuffed by legislative budget-writers, would be rescued by the bond initiative if it passed.

The measure passed, giving the conservancy $30 million.

So far, Edmiston’s tactics do not appear to have seriously jeopardized his job, although he did find himself in hot water with his board of directors last winter.

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Following criticism of his lobbying efforts on behalf of the Bob Hope land deal, board member Madelyn Glickfeld proposed that Edmiston’s deal-making powers be limited.

After weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions with the board, he emerged more or less unscathed, merely agreeing to keep directors better informed as he negotiated.

Inside the conservancy’s headquarters, perched on a Malibu ridge top in a tube-shaped building that looks like a high-tech barn, Edmiston is hurriedly proofreading a stack of documents.

The papers are the conservancy’s comments on the environmental impact report for the Hope deal. The submission deadline is an hour away. As the materials are run off a printer, an aide rushes them into Edmiston’s office by the handful.

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“I yelled at my assistants for the first time,” the aide admits, looking a bit sheepish.

“It’s a liberating feeling, isn’t it?” Edmiston replies, smiling broadly.

Raised in East Los Angeles, Edmiston lives in a rambling Santa Monica home with his wife, Pepper, the daughter of a wealthy clothing retailer, and their seven children. The family often hikes in the mountains, where Pepper runs a camp for children with cancer.

Edmiston is the only child of an engineer and a housewife-activist. He described them as a cultured, genteel couple deeply involved in local politics and environmental causes.

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As a boy he accompanied his father on camping trips to the desert. He went with his mother to a seemingly endless series of local government meetings on issues from saving tule elk to redrawing school district boundaries.

His first exposure to environmental politics came in long conversations with a family friend, Horace Albright, a onetime director of the National Park Service.

Albright told Edmiston how he had once escorted President Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Great Smoky Mountains. They rode a Packard touring car along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, with Albright arguing that a road proposed for the area would spoil it. Roosevelt agreed. The road was abandoned.

It was a lesson Edmiston never forgot. Today, he puts legislators and news reporters into four-wheel-drive vehicles and rented helicopters to see for themselves the beauty of the parcels the conservancy is interested in.

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After graduating from USC in 1970, Edmiston attended the University of West Los Angeles School of Law. He left without finishing when, at age 24, he was offered a $500-a-month job as a Sierra Club lobbyist in Sacramento.

He spent the next four years there, honing his skills of political persuasion and helping push through, among other legislation, the bill setting up the State Coastal Commission.

Edmiston next took a job as executive director of the newly created Santa Monica Mountains Comprehensive Planning Commission, the conservancy’s forerunner. It was charged with drafting a general plan for development in the mountains.

In 1980 he was appointed conservancy chief.

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For the past 18 months, Edmiston has spent much of his time trying to clinch the Hope deal.

For all its promised benefits, it has divided environmentalists. Critics have campaigned to undermine the swap and, by extension, Edmiston himself.

Under an initial proposal Hope would have turned 5,700 acres over to park agencies for $10 million, which is below market cost. In return, a developer would have received permission to build an access road across federal parkland near Agoura Hills. This would have allowed construction of a 750-home luxury development worth at least $375 million on land Hope owns in the Jordan Ranch area.

Seeking to persuade the local agencies whose approval the exchange needs, Edmiston has argued that it represents an affordable opportunity to add thousands of acres to the park system. He said development is inevitable in and near Jordan Ranch and the public might as well get a good chunk of parkland out of it.

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The deal suffered a setback in December when the Coastal Commission rejected a key part of it, a plan for luxury homes on land owned by Hope in Malibu.

Commissioners noted that the project would have ruined wildlife and plant habitat. One became so angry at Edmiston that he snapped: “To get this far in bed with a developer . . . makes me sick.”

Critics say large-scale development in Jordan Ranch would generate pollution and traffic and weaken Ventura County’s ability to maintain low densities in the mountainous area.

In addition, said longtime Sierra Club activist Jill Swift, “once you start saying you can put roads through national parks, then you start a slow dismantling of the national parks system as we know it.”

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Secret negotiations in recent months appeared Monday to have produced a tentative agreement that will break the deadlock and eliminate the most controversial features.

There would be no transfer of federal parkland. The development proposed for Jordan Ranch would be shifted elsewhere. Park agencies would buy the entire 2,308-acre ranch outright, and would receive thousands of acres from another land-owning company. Hope, whose sale of Jordan Ranch is central to the plan, has not yet agreed to it.

Opponents, meanwhile, have contended that Edmiston improperly used public funds to promote the deal. They point to conservancy records showing that in the year ending in November, 1990, it spent $30,000 on helicopter rides to show other government officials the land involved.

Edmiston said the rides were necessary to show decision-makers the widely scattered parcels, and that the cost was small in relation to the public benefits of the deal.

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Even sympathetic observers fear that Edmiston’s support of Jordan Ranch is part of a worrisome trend. They warn that the conservancy, chartered to protect open space, could become a champion for filling it with housing tracts.

“We are in danger of seeing the conservancy become a battering ram to batter down major planning protections and promote not just growth, but bad growth,” said David Brown, a Sierra Club activist and member of the conservancy’s advisory board.

Edmiston does not see it that way.

“The question for the conservancy is, how best do you spend taxpayers’ money to achieve open space? If you can do the public’s business and save significant amounts of money while you’re doing it--and you can stomach some development--then what the hell’s wrong with that?

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“The question is, what level of development can you stomach?”


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