April 30, 1993 - From the April, 1993 issue

Santa Monica Mtns. Conservancy: Edmiston’s Park Acquisition Goals

The Santa Monica Mountains may be a tranquil oasis in the middle of an urbanized area, but they are also frequently the site of noisy, high-stakes battles over land-use planning. Probably no one has been more influential in shaping development decisions in our local mountains than Joseph T. Edmiston, the Executive Director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. 

Edmiston sat down with The Planning Report recently at his idyllic mountaintop headquarters in Malibu’s Solstice Canyon to discuss the array of land-use issues facing the mountain areas.

"CEQA has probably been the greatest boon to political corruption since Tammany Hall."

Could you lay out for our readers what the Conservancy and its related organizations do, and what your planning and land-use powers are?

The Conservancy is a state agency, established in 1980. We have a charter to acquire land for park, open space, and conservation purposes. We are not in any way a regulatory agency. With the exception of the current lawsuit on Soka University, we have never exercised eminent domain. Our role has been to buy land from willing sellers in transactions similar to the private market.

Because we are a state agency with some restrictions on how fast we can operate and on the kind of transactions we can make, we have frequently used non-profit organizations such as the Mountains Conservancy Foundation to give us flexibility. We’ve also joined forces with local recreation and park districts to create an operating arm called the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority which has the ability to maintain parks and picnic areas. 

The theory is that we will own these parks for only a short period of time and then find another government agency — local, state or federal — to which we can sell the property. We then use the proceeds as a revolving fund to make other acquisitions, though we also sometimes grant a park with the condition it’s administered in a certain way. Much of our other funding comes from bond measures, such as the recent L.A. County Proposition A and the State Wildlife Bond measure of 1990.

What’s the vision for the Conservancy? What drives this organization? 

Rusty Schweikert, an Apollo astronaut, once told me a great story. While circling over the earth, the astronauts could clearly identify Los Angeles but they saw a black arrow in the heart of the Los Angeles basin. They figured they were looking at a massive blackout, and recorded their observations. But they were looking at the Santa Monica Mountains. People forget that there is an entire mountain chain right in the heart of Los Angeles.

Despite the urbanization of Los Angeles, Los Angeles has a wilderness fringe which is unappreciated. Our more or less explicit notion is to protect those wild areas. I think we will be defined as successful if, two generations from now, people can still walk into the mountains and be afraid of what they will find there — that they may come across a cougar. That’s real nature — it’s not the raccoon or possum in the backyard. 

People talk about the Santa Monica Mountains as the Central Park of L.A. It’s not. Griffith Park probably comes closest to that. We’re talking here about true wilderness. 

How do you choose among competing priorities to select properties to acquire for parkland? 

The issue we’re now confronting is that scientists are wondering why, with all the parklands we have, species aren’t behaving as we expected and the natural systems aren’t functioning. Our early mountain parks were set aside with a view of what land could be purchased easily, not by having a scientist identifying the natural habitat we need to protect. 

The scientists are now saying that unless we acquire 10,000 to 15,000 strategically placed additional acres, we could have a biological desert in the existing publicly owned properties. The Wildlife Bond of 1990 provided $50 million for wildlife corridors, to link public lands to create a sustainable ecosystem. That is a challenge much more difficult than simply buying nice open pieces of land as we did for our first five or six years. Now we have to buy areas, sometimes at very high prices, at the key constriction points in the corridor. 

We’re almost there. East of the San Diego Freeway, corridors are already blocked off east-west, though a few north-south corridors remain. West of the San Diego Freeway, to Topanga Canyon Boulevard, we are on the edge. If we can bring about 8,000 of the remaining 18,000 acres under control, we can probably retain a self-sustaining environment. If we have more incursions — such as the Avitar project in Woodland Hills, the Southwest Diversified Project in Mandeville, the Disney project in Topanga – we’ll lose the ecological integrity of that area. 

West of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the opportunities get better because development is more sparse. One of the reasons we’re so concerned about the Soka development at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland is that it’s a high-intensity use in the middle of the mountains — a major university 50% larger than Pepperdine. 

You used the term “ecological integrity.” When does ecological integrity bump up against Los Angeles’ explosive growth? We’ll be adding 500,000 residents to L.A. during the 1990s. Do these issues come into conflict? 

Fortunately, they don’t. The developments in these mountains are high end, luxury housing. The mountain areas will not be dealing with housing for the children of the first-generation immigrant cohort. The topography and land values in the mountain areas will not permit you to use this land for that purpose. And the market for higher-end projects is flat —you’ve got the Lee and Poe projects which are essentially moribund, and the Ahmanson and Porter Ranch projects, which will absorb a great deal of high-end mountain housing demand over the next five or ten years.

We view the population pressures here as being symbiotic with the preservation of wilderness because it creates the public need and justification for large land purchases. Yet, we’re not really in competition with the need for affordable housing. 

We’ve heard that you’re an admirer of Robert Moses. Yet it sounds like you’re about to repeat Moses’ mistake in looking for megaprojects — the large purchases west of Topanga — at a time when urban Los Angeles needs urban parks and pocket parks. Don’t we pay a high price for supporting your agency at the expense of a sustained effort in our urban core?

Actually, the lesson of the book The Power Broker was that Robert Moses went wrong when he went from Long Island park acquisitions to try to solve all the problems of the City of New York. If you see this agency starting to build roads or dams, watch out. 

I think that’s the greatest calumny against residents of South Central. It’s the West Side version of “keep them on the farm.” It’s saying that we need to make it pleasant for them so that they stay down there. Everybody in Southern California has a car: people get to the beach and recreation areas. The question is whether there will be sufficient land to have a non­dense, non-Griffith Park experience. 

It's not just Sierra Club members and West Side residents who need to go out and take a hike. Our education programs which bring inner city kids out to the mountains show that it’s what they need. 

But to have a very talented person like yourself primarily focused west of Topanga is — right or wrong — a major statement. We don’t have the equivalent for our urban parks. 


That’s true. The City and County parks systems are largely the product of splitting everything in the City 15 ways and in the County five ways. Everyone says there’s no planning in Los Angeles. That’s bunk. There’s great planning in Los Angeles but it’s being done by special purpose agencies like the Transportation Commission, the Flood Control District, the Sanitation District, and, I say, by the Mountains Conservancy. Instead of producing plans of hot air, we implement things. 

How, as a single-purpose agency, do you coordinate your efforts with other state agencies, with cities such as Calabasas, or with the City of L.A. Planning Department? 

The City of Los Angeles’ Planning Department does no real advance planning. It basically processes maps and does community plans, which are badly out of date. And when the City has done true advance planning, it’s fallen flat on its face. One of my favorite books is the City’s Plan from 1946, in which it claims that zoning will keep the San Fernando Valley rural and agricultural forever. Well, that didn’t work, did it? 

Henry Ford said planning is bunk. I’m a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and I don’t believe planning is bunk. But as a method of achieving environmental protection, zoning is bunk, because zoning has to respond to the economic needs of the people who come across the counter, not to the needs of the cougar. 

Does the CEQA process in California work for your agency? 

CEQA has probably been the greatest boon to political corruption since Tammany Hall. It forced an even closer relationship between developers and political contributions by establishing a relatively high hurdle that you need help to jump over. That created an iron bond between developer contributions and local government.

So, generically, has CEQA worked? Hell, no. In particular cases, do we get a couple hundred acres of open space here and there as a result of some developer having to make a mitigation measure? Clearly yes. But would California be better off without CEQA? It’s too late for that now, but if in 1970 we’d made a decision to use a series of bond issues to acquire the land straight out, rather than using CEQA mitigation measures, we’d have been vastly better off. 

You’ve mentioned the Soka project, which is a proposal by a Japanese organization to build a university campus in the mountains. Could you update us on its status and its implications for future projects?

It’s not a case study for future projects because most properties aren’t owned by a Japanese religious organization. Right now, we’ve taken a drubbing in the courts, with the court system saying we can’t condemn the property. Our statute says we have the power to condemn but there’s another statute saying we can’t. In weighing those two statutes, the judge said the state has a comprehensive policy on condemnation and would not allow us to use those powers absent direction from Sacramento. 

Ultimately, Soka’s political power has to be matched against what the court says our legal power is, and that’s where a single-purpose agency gets drubbed. An agency such as ours is subject to the overall political forces saying, “It’s fine so long as no one has a problem with it. But if Japan, Inc. has a problem with it, then we have a problem with it, and you’ve got to stop it.” We’re going up against Japan, Inc. and it has more power than the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. 

Our next step is to go to the Court of Appeals, which will take nine to twelve months, and Soka will probably have their permits by then. So we’re left only with what we can persuade them to do. If that’s the case, then a very important part of the mountains will be broken. 

What’s the status of the controversial Ahmanson project just over the Ventura County line from L.A. County? 

Ventura County has now approved 3,000 units, with 2,800 acres of open space on the 5,400 acres of the Ahmanson Ranch. The land swap portion of that deal has been dropped. The Ahmanson development and Hope development on Jordan Ranch combined forces to put all the density on the Ahmanson Ranch. 

We’ve talked about densification in the mountains: here’s an area where a spillover of urbanization is logical, albeit into a different county. Densification in this area — creating a new town project in the area most adjacent to the City of Los Angeles — made it possible to create a wilderness buffer of 10,000 acres. It made possible an environmental good that otherwise could not have occurred: there was not enough aggregation of money to make it possible. 

Though we’ve had a few last-minute hang-ups, we’re now finalizing the last details of the agreement. By the time your readers see this, I expect wel’l have succeeded in saving a large, critical corridor.

I think ten years from now you’ll see much of the private land currently banked in the local mountains become available to public agencies because of the extremely soft market. 

Finally, what priorities can we expect from the Conservancy in the next few years?

Overall, five years from now, if we’re doing our job right, there will be a circle of parks surrounding the San Fernando Valley, more or less connected. You’ll see at least 15,000 acres of parkland. It’s like building an arch: the arch won’t stand unless you build the keystone, and right now we’re building the critical keystones. 

If we can in the next five to ten years develop a sustainable system which continues on indefinitely, then this generation of Angelenos will be able to give future generations something that few generations have achieved. Few generations pass down the absence of things rather than the presence of things. Other generations pass along a legacy of office buildings and developments. This generation says we’ll pass along a different legacy — a legacy of mountain lions gently padding along wilderness areas.


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