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Conservancy Delays Plans for Temescal Gateway Park : Land use: Proposal to upgrade hiking site is withdrawn after nearby church group threatens to expose an error that would invalidate permit.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with opposition from a church group, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has temporarily withdrawn plans to develop Temescal Gateway Park in Pacific Palisades.

A conservancy official said last week, however, that it had not abandoned its goal of making the undeveloped 20-acre park, which is popular with hikers, more accessible to the public.

The state agency’s plans for the park have long included an 89-vehicle parking lot near Sunset Boulevard and Temescal Canyon Road, restrooms, an entry kiosk and other additions.

The park is envisioned as an important link between urbanized Los Angeles and an extensive trail system in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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Joseph T. Edmiston, the conservancy’s executive director, said the agency withdrew its application for the project, which had been approved by the California Coastal Commission, after the Presbyterian Synod of California and Hawaii threatened to expose “a technical oversight” that would have invalidated the permit.

The conservancy and the synod, whose Presbyterian Conference Center is next to the park, have long been at odds.

Synod officials are concerned that the project may interfere with their plans to expand the conference center. The conservancy and several community groups, meanwhile, oppose the synod’s expansion plans as excessive.

News that the conservancy had withdrawn its permit caught park supporters by surprise and fueled speculation that the state agency might be giving up its six-year effort to develop Temescal Gateway.

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However, park advocates expressed relief after hearing conservancy officials explain why they took the action.

“We have been told, and we certainly hope, that the withdrawal will result in only a temporary setback,” said Carol Leacock, who heads the 1,000-member Temescal Canyon Assn.

Conservancy officials withdrew the permit earlier this month after acknowledging that they had failed to begin work on the project within the required three years from when the permit was issued in 1985.

“It’s embarrassing. We made a mistake,” Edmiston said. “We had done some preliminary work to meet the requirements of law, but, belatedly, we discovered that that work had not been accomplished prior to the deadline.”

Edmiston said that once synod officials had become aware of the error, they had threatened to expose it unless the conservancy offered several concessions that would have aided the expansion of the conference center.

“We essentially said, ‘No, thank you. We will withdraw the permit ourselves and go back to the Coastal Commission with the same application within a couple of months and take our chances,’ ” he said.

An official of the synod, which represents about 300 churches, acknowledged that the church group was prepared to use the permit as leverage in its effort to reach an accommodation with the conservancy.

“We want to fulfill our dream of having a decent and proper conference center, and we want to be supportive of the (conservancy’s) park plans,” said Per Curtiss, a synod executive. “We can’t afford to do anything that would result in our property being devalued.”

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The synod filed a lawsuit last year aimed at forcing the state to build a 48-foot-wide road into the park, which it said is necessary to serve its expansion needs and to guarantee road access between Sunset Boulevard and the area where it wants to build.

Opponents, including conservancy officials, say such a wide road would ruin the park.

The lawsuit names the state of California and the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district acquired the property from the synod by condemnation in 1968 to build a school but sold it to the conservancy after plans for the school were scrapped.

The synod contends that it was given assurances by the school district that a road would be built on the property that the synod could share, and that the conservancy inherited the obligation to build the road as a condition of its purchase.

Underlying the disagreement over the size and location of the road are suspicions on both sides related to the synod’s expansion plans and the conservancy’s plans for future hiking trails.

The synod, which at one time wanted a center to accommodate up to 1,000 guests, said last year that it wants a facility that will accommodate no more than 250 overnight guests.

Last year, an estimated 50,000 hikers used a trail that originates in the undeveloped park and then twists for almost a mile through synod property via an easement before linking up with a trail in Topanga State Park and the network of public hiking trails beyond.

The synod wants assurances that trail development on its property would not interfere with the tranquility of its facility, and it wants the conservancy and others to drop claims of a historic trail easement that intrudes into the heart of the synod property.

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