State parks officials and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy have agreed to a land swap that clears the way for a long-anticipated decision on the future of some prized parkland in Los Liones Canyon.
The arrangement calls for a 32-acre parcel on Sunset Boulevard near the Pacific Ocean to be transferred to the conservancy, but gives state parks officials the final say over what is to become of the Pacific Palisades property.
The pact is certain to intensify debate among those who want the parkland to become a major gateway to Topanga State Park, those who favor a botanical garden there, and a local synagogue and YMCA that want to acquire part of it for their own use.
A spokesman for state parks director Donald Murphy said this week that the state parks commission will decide the outcome after public hearings early next year.
"The agreement establishes a process," said Ken McKowen, the spokesman. "It doesn't prejudge any specific proposal."
The state bought the Los Liones property in 1977 after local residents turned back efforts by developers to build estate homes and condominiums there.
Nestled at the lower end of the canyon, the nozzle-shaped property is framed on two sides by expensive houses that dot the canyon's rim. Some residents, including those who prefer a botanical garden, are concerned about the noise and traffic that other uses might create.
Parks enthusiasts, meanwhile, view Los Liones as a critical link between the city and Topanga State Park--and to the extensive trail system throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.
The arrangement involving Los Liones is part of a complicated land swap agreed to last year and recently altered to favor the state parks department after months of bickering between the two agencies. The conservancy, a sister agency of the state parks department, is responsible for acquiring and preserving parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Last year the conservancy agreed to buy several privately owned acres near Malibu Creek State Park that were about to be developed and which the state parks department could not afford.
Environmentalists say the purchase was critical because development would have forever marred views of an area once used for filming the "MASH" TV series. That area is the Malibu Creek park's best-known and most popular spot.
The conservancy agreed to swap the Malibu parcels and its 22-acre Temescal Gateway Park in Pacific Palisades to the state parks department in return for the Los Liones property.
The conservancy had hoped to sell part of the Los Liones property and thereby recoup the nearly $2 million it had invested near Malibu. Under the arrangement, the state parks department had agreed to reimburse the conservancy directly if a sale in Los Liones did not take place.
Enter Temple Kehillath Israel and the Pacific Palisades-Malibu YMCA, which together had expressed interest in acquiring up to 12 acres of Los Liones to build facilities there.
In informal talks with the conservancy, officials of the temple have expressed willingness to provide public parking, build a trail head for the important link into Topanga State Park, and help pay for playing fields for community use on part of the property.
The temple, the YMCA and the conservancy saw it as a win-win kind of package.
Others, particularly some nearby residents, viewed it differently and lobbied Murphy, the state parks director, to squelch the idea.
"We don't want to sacrifice parkland here in the name of preserving it somewhere else," said Randy Young, chairman of the Pacific Palisades Community Council. "And we don't believe the conservancy should be doing sweetheart deals with local groups."
The state parks director apparently needed little encouragement.
Already at odds with the conservancy's executive director, Joseph T. Edmiston, Murphy announced in July that while the land transfer was still on, he was not pleased with other parts of the arrangement.
Shortly afterward, in a meeting refereed by state Resources Secretary Douglas Wheeler, who oversees state parks and the conservancy, Murphy succeeded in removing the department's obligation to repay the conservancy for the Malibu property.
Since then, the director has also made public pronouncements against the privatizing of the Los Liones property.
At a small gathering at Los Liones last month also attended by Edmiston, Murphy told opponents of the temple-YMCA plan that he opposes privatization.
Edmiston, asked to comment on the matter, said, "I know when I'm beaten. And I also know the declining returns of beating a dead horse."
Murphy's office did not return numerous phone calls.
Meanwhile, officials of the temple and the YMCA said they intend to press ahead with their proposal during the hearings on Los Liones' future.
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Temple Kehillath Israel dismissed opponents as "a small but vocal group," adding that it was "unfortunate that (Murphy) was evidently so heavily lobbied by them."
Land of Opportunity
The fate of 32 acres in Pacific Palisades' Los Liones Canyon, long coveted by park enthusiasts, is uncertain under a complicated land-swap proposal involving the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the state parks department.