Acreage From Mountains to Sea to Become Parkland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A conservation group has decided to buy 1,659 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains for parkland, clearing the way for the largest coastal-area acquisition there in two decades.

There are spectacular ocean views in the mountainous parcel and rare species such as the horned lizard and the Santa Monica Mountains dudleya plant. It is also habitat for threatened species such as the California gnatcatcher and Braunton's milk-vetch.

Straddling Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the land shares a long boundary with Topanga State Park and a smaller border with Malibu.

But the mountains-to-sea parcel, which was appraised at $43 million and stretches from Topanga State Park all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Topanga State Beach, is also home to about a dozen businesses and restaurants and more than 50 rental homes.

"It's over for us," said Martin Morehart, who with his wife, Patricia, has run the Malibu Feed Bin on Pacific Coast Highway for 35 years. "There is no such thing as relocation. We're an old feed store. It doesn't work unless we have the old rent."

Morehart's landlord is LAACO, Ltd. of Los Angeles, which also owns the Los Angeles Athletic Club, California Yacht Club and Storage West, a five-state storage unit firm. LAACO has owned the largely undeveloped parcel since the 1930s. "This is a huge acquisition, probably the largest in the last 20 years," said Russ Dingman, a state park planner. "If this deal goes through, it will be a landmark in this decade."

American Land Conservancy of San Francisco, which buys land for preservation, has had an option to purchase the parcel and it intends to turn it over to state parks.

Gov. Gray Davis has set aside $40 million in this year's budget for the land deal, and the state must approve the final price, said Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for the American Land Conservancy. The deal is expected to close by the end of the year.

A key issue that must be resolved is whether the land must be unoccupied, as preferred for state parkland. But Benson said all tenants would "receive fair and adequate compensation as required by the law."

Morehart said he's been in shock ever since he received an eviction notice a few weeks ago, then a second note rescinding the eviction. Benson said she knew of no one being evicted. Tenants received letters explaining the conservancy's purchase plans, she said.

Since 1966, the feed store and its petting zoo with goats, sheep, ducks and potbellied pigs has been a local landmark.

The future for the cluster of businesses on Pacific Coast Highway and the area's residential renters, who are all month-to-month tenants, is uncertain.

Residents have organized and hired an attorney. "We want to find out what our rights are," Vince West said. "I've lived here for 15 years and most people have lived there for at least 20 years."

Others said they will wait out the sale. "If it happens, we probably have to go. That's what it looks like," said Richard Jo, who runs the Topanga Ranch Liquor and Market on the highway. "I can't fix it up because the future is very uncertain."

The land was almost sold a decade ago, when LAACO had agreed to sell it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, but the agency could not come up with financing.

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