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Equestrian Center Battle Continues

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to make an offer in its eight-year battle over the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center, but the center’s operator rejected it as far short of fair, saying he would press on with a lawsuit against the city.

The council voted unanimously to offer Eddie Milligan--developer and operator of the equestrian center since 1989--a 21-year contract to continue running it.

Milligan sued the city last year, claiming the city reneged on a promise to give him a 30-year contract after he made $3 million in improvements to the equestrian center. The suit, which seeks $18 million in damages, is scheduled for trial July 21 in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents the Hansen Dam area, said the city could offer only 21 years on a lease because that’s as long as the city has park rights at the dam, a federally owned flood-control basin managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

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Alarcon said the city hoped the offer, which does not include any payment for damages, would settle Milligan’s suit.

“My goal is not to shut him down, but to offer him the contract he wanted,” Alarcon said.

But Milligan and his attorney said Tuesday they do not consider the city’s action a viable offer. In addition to the shorter-term lease, the offer includes about 20 other provisions that are objectionable because they limit operations at the center in a way that would make it unprofitable, said the attorney, Robert A. Graham of Arcadia.

“They are cramming this down his throat,” he said.

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Milligan accused the city of “trying to change horses in the middle of the stream. Somebody is going to get wet and it’s not going to be me.”

Operation of the equestrian center has been a battleground since Milligan arrived in 1989 to rescue the dilapidated facility.

Built in the 1940s, the stables were popular through the 1960s, with a network of trails winding around the recreational area that boasted a 130-acre lake for boating and swimming.

But as the lake silted up and filled with debris, eventually dwindling to an unsightly pond, the stables deteriorated with it. The barns finally closed in mid-1980 after the previous operator could no longer generate enough revenue to offset rising insurance and maintenance costs.

The city for five years attempted to restart the equestrian operation but nothing happened until Milligan emerged with a grand plan.

His resume included design and construction of the Malibu Riding and Tennis Club, Los Angeles Equestrian Center and Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center in Huntington Beach--all known for their picturesque settings, with extensive landscaping, show arenas and other amenities.

In the past eight years, Milligan, 66, his wife, Nancy, and their daughter Kelley, 37, have developed the 50-acre Hansen Dam center into a landscaped equestrian showcase, with stalls and corrals for 200 horses, 16 riding arenas, grand prix turf course and rodeo stadium.

The city initially agreed to give Milligan a 30-year lease to operate the equestrian center and the go-ahead to begin construction, according to city records. But in granting the agreement, the city had not obtained approval from the Corps of Engineers, which controls the land.

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“They sold me the Cadillac, but they didn’t have the pink slip,” Milligan once said.

The corps has never approved Milligan’s lease, instead attempting to evict him for erecting two mobile homes and other improvements without corps approval. The latest offer by the council Tuesday also contains or omits other provisions that differ from the original agreement, Milligan and his attorney said.

Tuesday, Nancy Milligan was working, as usual, in the vast gardens she designed and built. “It’s been a lot of work,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Eddie Milligan said the dispute with the city is about more than just the dollars the couple have invested.

“This place is eight years of our lives,” he said. “And that means a lot more than money.”


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