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Agency Prepares Backup Ahmanson Plan : Development: Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy wants to buy first rights to Bob Hope’s land if the project falls through.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state park agency decided Wednesday to work out a backup plan to buy first rights to Bob Hope’s Runkle Ranch property if the $1-billion Ahmanson Ranch deal falls through.

In a related matter, National Park Service officials did not disclose whether they would carry out their threat to withdraw today the $19.5 million set aside to purchase thousands of acres of parkland as part of the Ahmanson Ranch deal.

Meeting in closed session Wednesday, the governing board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy voted to authorize paying Hope an undisclosed amount of money for first rights to buy his 4,369-acre Runkle Ranch northeast of Simi Valley.

Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy, stressed that the conservancy’s backup plans are simply precautionary steps and do not mean that the Ahmanson deal is in jeopardy.

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“This should not be an indication one way or the other as to the status of negotiations,” he said. “This is just one more thing that has been thrown into the mix.”

Approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in December, the Ahmanson project would create a community of 8,600 residents in the rolling hills south of Simi Valley. And it would turn over nearly 10,000 acres of mountain land--7,000 owned by Hope, including Runkle Ranch--to state and federal park agencies for $29.5 million.

The National Park Service holds the linchpin for the deal because it is providing more than half of the $29.5 million Hope will get from park agencies.

David Gackenbach, regional superintendent of the park service, did not return phone calls Wednesday. Gackenbach said earlier this week that he would withdraw the park service’s money if partners in the Ahmanson deal failed to close negotiations by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

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Park service spokeswoman Jean Bray said she did not know if the superintendent would follow through with his plans today, saying only that Gackenbach is “a man of his word.”

Bray said she did not know when Gackenbach had last talked with representatives of Ahmanson Land Co., Hope or Hope’s development partner, Potomac Investment Associates. Officials from each of the companies did not return phone calls.

Ahmanson has ignored a number of park service deadlines intended to force an end to negotiations, which have dragged on for almost three months. The developer initially promised to sign final development agreements soon after the project was approved Dec. 15.

But Gackenbach said last week that he agreed to extend the deadline, initially set for March 31, because “we don’t want it to look like we’re the people who killed the deal.”

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The deal has been delayed because Ahmanson, Hope and Potomac have not been able to agree on how to split up profits from the project.

Even if the park service were to withdraw its money from escrow today, Gackenbach has said it could be two weeks or more before the money is committed to another park acquisition project. He said the money could easily be put back in the escrow account if he is given assurances that the Ahmanson deal is still alive.

Some government officials expressed fears Wednesday that the Ahmanson deal may be in trouble.

“Yes, I’m concerned,” said Supervisor Maria VanderKolk, the county official most involved in the project. “I’ve been concerned for the past few weeks.”

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VanderKolk said she spoke with Payson Wolfe, Bob Hope’s attorney, earlier this week but declined to reveal the content of their discussion. She said Wolfe planned to meet with Hope on Wednesday to discuss the Ahmanson deal.

One park service official suggested Wednesday that Hope’s financial requirements are the main obstacle to closing the deal.

“I hate to see all these years of work go down the drain,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “Why does Bob Hope need more money?”

Under the original agreement, Hope would receive $29.5 million from park agencies for his property plus a share of profits from the development. But as potential profits have dwindled in the face of payout demands and lawsuits, Hope has insisted on guaranteed payments beyond the $29.5 million, VanderKolk has said.

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However, Ahmanson officials have also told VanderKolk that it has notified Hope, Potomac and park agencies that it is ready to cancel the project if negotiators continue to press for more money.

Ahmanson has maintained for months that its profit margin is being whittled away by a bad economy, nine lawsuits and unexpectedly high demands for payouts from the nearby cities of Los Angeles, Calabasas and Malibu and Los Angeles County.

Times staff writer Stephanie Simon contributed to this article.


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