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Gift of Land to Save Money for Developer : Growth: A parks agency gets 6,000 acres from Ritter Ranch builders, along with $30,000 to maintain it. Another bidder wanted a $1.74-million endowment.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A pending gift of land that would be the largest in the history of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy will also help a big Antelope Valley developer save money.

Under an agreement signed in July, the Malibu-based conservancy is to receive 6,000 acres of desert wild lands west of Palmdale from Ritter Park Associates, which plans to build a community of 7,200 homes next to the nine-square-mile preserve.

In capturing this vast expanse of open space, the conservancy, in effect, underbid a Sacramento-based conservation group that sought the donation along with a $1.74-million endowment from the developer to pay the long-term cost of patrolling and managing the tract, which is larger than Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.

Instead, developers of the Ritter Ranch project will give the conservancy a onetime donation of $30,000 to use in administering the property. The financially strapped agency will be on its own after that.

Sherry Teresa, a wildlife biologist and president of the Center for Natural Lands Management Inc., said Ritter Ranch officials told her they chose the conservancy over her group because the conservancy was “a lot . . . cheaper.”

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To soften opposition to their desert mini-city of 20,000 residents, the Ritter Ranch developers promised the open space as a haven for wildlife and a playground for hikers, equestrians and mountain bicyclists.

But for two years, they searched in vain for a group to accept the gift without financial strings attached. Before the conservancy came along, at least half a dozen government agencies and conservation groups had passed on the offer, either for lack of interest or lack of funds to manage the preserve.

To donate the land and then pay for its upkeep “didn’t make sense to us,” said Peter Wenner, project manager for Ritter Park Associates.

“This is one of the largest gifts ever given and we think we should be commended,” Wenner said. “We wanted no liability towards the maintenance of” the property.

In some cases, developers have donated parkland and money to maintain it to offset environmental damage and win approval for their projects. More often, the upkeep of these open space areas has become a public responsibility. Some environmentalists contend that the upkeep should be treated as a cost of doing business and should not become a burden to taxpayers.

The Ritter Ranch donation depends on final clearances for the project--including a decision by the city of Palmdale to annex the area. If the donation goes through, it will be notable in several respects:

* The gift would be the biggest ever for the conservancy, a state parks agency that acquires land and runs outdoor programs in the Santa Monicas and neighboring ranges. An agency known for its aggressive pursuit of open space, the conservancy has acquired about 20,000 acres by purchase and donation in its 12-year history. In a single stroke, this gift would boost its holdings 30%.

* The property is well outside the conservancy’s normal base of operations--the Santa Monica Mountains and the Rim of the Valley Corridor that encircles the San Fernando Valley. In fact, the acquisition would be the conservancy’s first of any size in the Antelope Valley.

* The job of administering the preserve would increase the financial pressures on an agency already under stress. The conservancy has had to cut staffing and trim programs due to budget cuts and would be spread even thinner by this new responsibility.

The land would actually be given to the conservancy’s sister agency, the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority--a partnership of the conservancy and the Conejo and Rancho Simi Recreation and Park Districts.

The conservancy and MRCA this year are facing budget cuts of about 40% from their funding levels last year. Since April, 1991, the agencies have had to trim about 14 of 35 full-time positions, said conservancy Deputy Director Belinda Faustinos.

Ranging in elevation from about 3,000 to 5,247 feet, the Ritter preserve abuts Angeles National Forest and includes most of the eastern portion of the Sierra Pelona range.

Hoping to appease critics of their giant planned community, the Ritter Ranch developers pledged in 1989 to dedicate the public preserve. But when they looked for a beneficiary, they could find no takers.

Among others, they approached The Nature Conservancy, the U. S. Forest Service and Los Angeles County. They also contacted the Santa Monica Mountains conservancy in 1990, but the agency declined to pursue the offer.

Then last year, the developers began negotiations with the Center for Natural Lands Management, a nonprofit group that was set up to manage habitat areas.

The center said it needed $62,500 per year to run the preserve, including trail maintenance, safety patrols and wildfire management. It proposed a $1.74-million endowment to assure that level of support.

Teresa of the center said she knew that Ritter Ranch officials were not enthused about paying an endowment. And she said they never promised to accept her proposal. But Teresa said she was told informally by a Ritter Park official that the center would get the land because there were no other prospects.

“They went to everybody,” Teresa said. “Nobody was going to take it but us.”

Then last fall, as hearings on the project approached before Palmdale city planners and council members, the developers sought Teresa’s help. A public relations consultant drafted a guest editorial intended for use in local newspapers that praised the developers’ environmental sensitivity, and asked Teresa to sign it.

“Those of us in California who count ourselves as environmentalists and who care about open space are sending the wrong message if we only condemn the ‘bad’ developers and do not praise developers like those of Ritter Ranch,” said the proposed editorial.

“This is one person who says, ‘thank you,’ Ritter. . . . We wish there were more like you.”

But Teresa wouldn’t sign the editorial, citing the center’s policy of neither supporting nor opposing development projects.

At the time, Wenner said, the developers were “looking for endorsements everywhere.” But he said that there were no hard feelings, and that Teresa’s refusal to sign was not a factor in the decision on the land.

A short time later, however, the developers made another run at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. This time, agency officials toured the land and found it “drop-dead beautiful country,” said Joseph T. Edmiston, the conservancy’s executive director.

Edmiston said the conservancy didn’t know until after the deal was done that the developers were negotiating with Teresa’s group. He said he believed then, and believes now, that the gift of parkland might have been lost without the conservancy’s involvement.

In a letter last May to Michael A. Mantell, undersecretary of the state Resources Agency, Edmiston said, “We felt that if this organization did not step forward, then there was a real risk that resource protection and long-term public accessibility would be jeopardized.”

After obtaining an attorney general’s opinion that they could own parkland outside their prescribed base of operations, the conservancy and its partner, the MRCA, agreed to accept the donation.

They also got the developers to agree to a onetime donation of $30,000.

“Quite assuredly, if someone has an extra couple of million around to put in an endowment, that would be great,” Edmiston said. But Ritter Park officials “indicated to us that the $30,000 was the most that they could do, period.”

According to Wenner, conservancy officials “asked if there was any more money available, and I indicated no.”

Wenner said Teresa’s group appears “to be a wonderful organization.” But he said he had trouble with the idea that “we’re giving a gift . . . and she wants us to pay her for it.

“We were looking for . . . a match,” Wenner said, “and that match came with the conservancy.”

Teresa said she does not blame Ritter for seeking the best deal. But she said she has questions about how the land will be cared for, and who will pay to do it. “We just have concerns that . . . the public shouldn’t be subsidizing development,” she said.

“It . . . strikes me this is a species of sour grapes,” complained Edmiston, adding that he did not believe that the conservancy kept the developers from meeting Teresa’s terms.

“The Ritter Ranch people tell me they never would have spent that money, ever,” he said.

Edmiston also said he thinks $30,000 is a more reasonable figure for annual maintenance of the property than the $62,500 that the center had proposed. And while acknowledging that he doesn’t know where the money will come from, he said the conservancy has succeeded in the past in getting local government support for its outdoor programs.

Rorie Skei, a program manager with the MRCA, said the agency may also use volunteers to maintain trails, lead hikes and patrol the property, as it has in other parks.

“There is a cost, but in terms of real active management out there, it’s not something that would happen right away,” Skei said.

The main thing is to “make sure that that land is protected forever,” she said. As for maintenance, “we have always bet on the come.”


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