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Tollway Foes Find Ally in Foundation

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

When staunch opponents of the planned San Joaquin Hills toll road gather, the collection plate is passed around to obtain $5 and $10 donations to help pay mounting legal costs.

But behind the scenes is a major player underwriting much of the effort--the Homeland Foundation of Laguna Beach, run by Anne Catherine Getty, granddaughter of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, and her husband, John Earhart.

In the last four years, the charitable trust has given $400,000 to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the national group that is leading the legal battle against the San Joaquin Hills toll road.

Due to open in 1996, the $1-billion tollway would be a 17 1/2-mile extension of the Corona del Mar Freeway (California 73) southward from MacArthur Boulevard, near John Wayne Airport, to Interstate 5 near San Juan Capistrano, parallel to the coast.

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One of the nation’s most aggressive and successful environmental organizations, the NRDC established its Los Angeles office in 1989, the same year it started receiving money from the Homeland Foundation, according to mandatory reports filed by Earhart with the state.

Last year, the foundation, with assets of $14.6 million, gave $1.4 million to charities ranging from Oxfam, a British relief agency, to KCET public television. Most of the foundation’s donations, however, went to environmental groups.

In a rare interview, the reclusive Earhart, a former biologist with the World Wildlife Fund and ex-Peace Corps volunteer, said Homeland does not require that its funds to NRDC be used specifically to battle the toll road. But the fact the NRDC would make the toll road a major cause encouraged Homeland to help fund its local operations.

“Four or five years ago, " Earhart said, “they came to us with a proposal to fund general operations and we said yes. We pay operating costs. We pay for the light bulbs.”

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Last year, court documents show, the NRDC sent a grant proposal to the Homeland Foundation that outlined a last-ditch legal attack on the toll road by challenging the adequacy of the project’s environmental impact statement in federal court. The NRDC is expected to file such a lawsuit in a few months.

“Our support for the NRDC is like our support for other environmental organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and many others,” Earhart said. “We saw the NRDC as a major, national environmental organization, and we, along with others, were seeking to bring such an organization to Southern California, because there wasn’t one here. . . .”

It is the NRDC that has petitioned state and federal authorities to have the California gnatcatcher--a small bird whose habitat is in the path of planned toll roads and new housing developments--listed as an endangered species.

Also, the NRDC has fought the issuance of toll road permits by regulatory agencies, including the state Coastal Commission, and has successfully defended toll road opponents when they were sued last summer by the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency.

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Records show that local activist groups opposed to the toll road have run up $50,000 to $75,000 in unpaid legal bills. They issue frequent pleas for contributions and depict themselves as struggling, grass-roots, nickel-and-dime operations run out of a shoe box.

Project proponents, however, have been critical of that public image, and some say the links to Homeland and the NRDC undermine the David-vs.-Goliath image that the opponents have fostered.

The NRDC has a national budget of about $17 million and its board of directors includes Hollywood star Robert Redford, as well as former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and Peter Morton, founder of the Hard Rock Cafe. The organization’s Southern California advisory council includes Morton and Ira Yellin, developer of the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, as well as Congressman-elect Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara), heir to a family oil fortune.

Earhart said it was “understood” by the NRDC that the toll road was one of the reasons Homeland sought to establish an NRDC office in Los Angeles, but that there would be many other environmental battles as well, “including the fight for clean air.”

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He said he and his wife oppose the toll road because “it will destroy natural habitats” and pollute the air by increasing, rather than reducing, Southern California’s reliance on automobiles, and thus fossil fuels.

“From the very beginning we put this project on our docket,” said Mary Nichols, NRDC’s senior Los Angeles attorney and former chairwoman of the state Air Resources Board who is also a former trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund. “It was the last big freeway or road-building project that was going to open up raw land for massive, suburban-type development. . . . This project has gotten nationwide publicity.”

Support from the Homeland Foundation is significant for NRDC in the decision to actively battle the toll road, Nichols said. She added, however, that two other groups--the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York and the Energy Foundation in Menlo Park in Northern California--each have contributed more to the NRDC.

Funds from the two groups, she said, are tied “more directly to the toll road fight because of their boards’ interests in alternative transportation policies.”

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Still, not even key anti-toll road activists such as Michael Phillips, executive director of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, were aware of the Homeland Foundation’s extensive contributions to NRDC, even though the foundation once paid part of Phillips’ salary when he worked for another organization, the Laguna Greenbelt Inc.

Several Laguna Beach activists who know Getty and Earhart said that any help the couple provides comes with a request that recipients never talk about the couple or the foundation.

“I had no idea that they were getting money from the Homeland group,” Phillips said of the NRDC. “But I’m certainly glad they are. . . . I’d say we’d be in deep trouble without them. They bring in a nationally known organization, one that is well-respected and committed to environmental issues. I wouldn’t want to think where we’d be without them.”

The foundation’s investments, however, may sometimes work at cross-purposes with its environmental goals. For example, the foundation’s 1991 annual report showed that it held corporate bonds from Eastman Kodak and General Electric, which have been cited as major polluters by regulatory agencies.

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Earhart said he is trying to move these investments into a “green” direction. The foundation’s 1991 annual report, for instance, also showed holdings in the Global Environment Fund and the disposal of some GE stock.

Of the apparent contradiction, Earhart, who now describes his occupation as investor, said: “The problem is that we have used a conventional money manager. We are in the process of changing that. If you look at the record, you’ll also see ‘green’ investments listed too. So yeah, we are moving in that direction.”

Homeland Donations

Homeland Foundation’s Biggest Gifts, 1991:

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Group Amount World Wildlife Fund $182,000 Natural Resources Defense Council 150,000 Center for Marine Conservation 100,000 Oxfam America 100,000 Partners of the Americas 69,810 The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii 50,000 Chrysalis Center 33,000 Jepson Herbarium 30,000 Friends of School of Agriculture 28,800 of the Humid Tropics 28,800 Environmental Defense Fund 25,000 Laguna Canyon Foundation 25,000 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation 25,000 St. Anthony Foundation 25,000

Source: Homeland Foundation’s periodic report to California attorney general


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