Stung by a $20,000 property tax levy, a Conejo Valley land-preservation agency is scrambling to persuade Prudential Insurance Co. to help foot the overdue bill, because officials say the company failed to disclose that the 84 acres the firm donated in 1988 carried a tax burden.
The Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, which owns 12,000 acres of undeveloped land in the Thousand Oaks area, was charged for the back taxes on the acreage across the Ventura County border near Westlake Village.
COSCA typically is exempt from property taxes, and officials said they were unaware that when the Decker Canyon land was offered they would owe money, because the property is outside Ventura County.
"We never would have taken the land had we known that," said Mark Towne, a COSCA spokesman. "This is clearly something that should have been disclosed to us before we accepted the land."
Prudential donated the 84 acres along with hundreds of acres of Ventura County land during negotiations with Thousand Oaks to approve a major development in North Ranch.
COSCA nearly lost the property this week when Los Angeles County tax officials scheduled the 10 parcels of rolling grassland for auction, Towne said.
Just days before the auction, he said, agency officials persuaded the county to give them more time to work through reams of red tape.
COSCA officials learned of the tax problem in 1992 and have for three years failed to persuade Los Angeles County tax officials to exempt them from taxes, despite numerous appeals.
They have argued that the land should be considered worthless because it is zoned as publicly held open space, Towne said. The issue is now before the State Board of Equalization, he said.
In the meantime, members of the COSCA board, which administers an annual budget of about $500,000, asked their staff members to appeal to Prudential for help paying the back taxes.
This week, COSCA sent letters asking the company to help solve the tax problem, Towne said. Prudential officials could not be reached for comment.
The agency also plans to pursue the issue with Ticor Title Insurance, which Towne said failed to report the tax situation in title reports it prepared just prior to the land transaction.
Officials at Los Angeles-based Chicago Title, Ticor's parent company, said they would look into the case but did not have immediate knowledge of it.
If COSCA finds a way to clear its debt, COSCA board member Tex Ward said, officials can proceed with a number of proposals to get rid of the land.
"We have a lot of options open to us," Ward said. "The main problem we're facing is that we would like to come up with a way to keep from having to pay this $20,000."
Ward said COSCA has approached conservation agencies that have tax-exempt status in Los Angeles County, such as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, to take over ownership of the land.
Or, he said, the agency could arrange to hand off the land to the city of Westlake Village.
City leaders there said they have not heard of that proposal.
"Our goal is to preserve that area's open space and work through these problems," Ward said. "I think we all have the same goal. It's just going to take some cooperation."