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Cash Drought Wilts Streisand Center : Environment: High maintenance costs delay agency’s ambitious plans to use singer’s former Malibu estate as an ecological think tank.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A state conservation agency’s lofty vision to turn Barbra Streisand’s Malibu estate into a Camp David for environmental scientists has been brought down to earth by financial setbacks.

Last year, expenses for the newly created Barbra Streisand Center for Conservancy Studies atop exclusive Ramirez Canyon amounted to five times the revenue the place generated. The big toothache: costly maintenance required to keep up the pop diva’s lavish estate.

The center, donated by Streisand in late 1993, is being forced into temporary hibernation because of a lack of money and the lack of a Coastal Commission permit to hold large conferences. Fund-raising efforts have been temporarily shut down. Two of the five houses on the property are going to be leased as residences to offset costs.

When Streisand donated her 22.5-acre property, valued at $15 million, to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, conservancy officials believed the property would pay for itself through money generated by leasing out the homes for environmental conferences.

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But simply watering the lush landscaping on the estate last year cost the agency $22,000--about a third of the $60,000 in revenue the center collected during the year. Start-up and maintenance costs, including a $70,000 salary for the Streisand Center’s academic director, Madelyn Glickfeld, were about $300,000. Electricity bills totaled about $15,000.

The financial picture is expected to get even worse in the coming months because the conservancy won’t be able to hold large conferences on the grounds.

The bad news comes after a yearlong barrage of complaints by critics, among them Ramirez Canyon residents, who say the center will overburden the canyon’s only road, disrupt native wildlife and pollute the watershed with increased sewage capacity.

“This just crystallizes for us how much the conservancy’s proposed use for the center is a white elephant,” said Mindy Sheps, an attorney for the 60-member Ramirez Canyon Homeowners Assn. “There simply is no way for it to be [economical]. The burden of operation costs is on conservancy [park] acquisition funds, which should go to benefit a far greater segment of our population than just people who think on matters of the environment.”

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From the outset, the conservancy’s executive director, Joseph T. Edmiston, and conservancy board members envisioned the center as a spot where scholars would tackle critical ecological questions against the backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains.

But critics, who dubbed the center “Streisandland,” warn that the conservancy’s vision for the property was elitist and expensive. They want the agency to sell the center, contending that it will never become self-sustaining.

“It isn’t fair to [use park funds] to pay for a luxury operation when the public will never get much use out of it,” said David Brown, a member of the conservancy’s advisory committee. “We will never make enough money with the center located there. . . . We will not be able to lease it to enough people.”

Edmiston and Glickfeld, an environmental land-use expert who sits on the Coastal Commission, defend their plans to make the center a force in environmental innovation.

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“There is no question that we need to find new directions to protect the environment in the 21st Century, [and] that is the mission of the Streisand Center,” Edmiston said. “If we ignore the intellectual questions about environmental protections, especially when Congress is gutting the Clean Air Act, it is the equivalent of farmers eating their seed corn.”

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Edmiston acknowledged that he underestimated the amount of time it would take to make the center financially self-supporting.

“There were more things broken than I realized, like the water mains that had to be repaired,” he said. “The big defect in our business plan is that we planned to have a coastal permit by now. We planned for an 18-month subsidy, but that’s up now. The expenses will be lowered over time. A lot of the expense has to do with the way that the property was developed.”

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The land, accessible by a single-lane private road, is surrounded by orchards, an organic garden, towering sycamore and oak trees, and a natural stream to the west. Streisand landscaped it with a variety of palm trees, vines, ivy, Bermuda grass and an array of flowering plants requiring heavy amounts of water. To reduce water bills, Edmiston said, invasive non-native vegetation will be ripped out and replaced with drought-resistant coastal sage and other indigenous plants. There are also plans to restore a stream that was rerouted using concrete and rocks.

Adding to the financial squeeze are looming budget cuts at a joint-powers agency formed by the conservancy and two Ventura County park districts that helped subsidize the Streisand Center.

The center’s administrative staff, whose salaries add up to about $143,000 a year, will take a hit, Edmiston said. Glickfeld has volunteered to take a leave of absence. Two other administrative staff members will be cut unless donations or fees from small conferences in the first three months of the coming year bring in enough revenue to pay their salaries. A groundskeeper, who earns about $25,000 a year, will remain.

The conservancy requires a coastal development permit to lease the center to large groups ranging from 35 twice a week to groups of 400 once a year. The original application was withdrawn after the Coastal Commission asked the conservancy to provide more environmental assessment information. Money set aside for Glickfeld’s salary will be used to pay for the reports, Edmiston said.

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