Lower Topanga Canyon optioned for sale


The American Land Conservancy (ALC), a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, has recently optioned a 1,640 acre Topanga Canyon parcel, part of which fronts Pacific Coast Highway, from its owners, the Los Angeles Athletic Club Organization (LAACO). The parcel begins three miles up Topanga Canyon (see map) where it is adjacent to the existing Topanga State Park, comes down along Topanga Canyon Road and spreads out along PCH about a half mile west of the canyon. It includes long-established businesses like the Topanga Ranch Market, the Topanga Ranch Motel, the Reel Inn, Something’s Fishy Restaurant, Oasis furniture and the Feed Bin.

Although this option may be good news for park enthusiasts, it may be bad news for the tenants living in housing on the property that would be converted to park land (see accompanying story).

This property was optioned once before, about 10 years ago, by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, but that deal fell through because the SMMC couldn’t raise enough money. What’s different this time is that the state has budgeted $40 million to create a state park in the lower Topanga Canyon, and that money is currently sitting in the bank, waiting to be used.

“I think it’s one of the best acquisitions left to be made in the Santa Monica Mountains,” said Joe Edmiston, director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, indicating this purchase would provide an excellent recreational opportunity close to Malibu.

The state money to complete the deal comes from the largess of the California voters, who in March of this year overwhelmingly approved Prop. 12, a $2.1 billion bond act that provides funds to enable the State Parks Dept. to purchase open land. However, the bond act doesn’t allow the state to purchase land with improvements on it, which means existing housing and businesses would have to be removed before State Parks can purchase the Topanga property, or some method must be found to break up the developed portions from the undeveloped portions before the state could step in. This necessitates that some entity has to come in as a middle man to make the deal workable. The American Land Conservancy seems to be that entity.

The property owners, LAACO, and their representative Julie Benson were very cautious about the possibility of a sale.

“So far there are no negotiations about an impending sale,” said Benson, but added that the ALC “are the only people with that option right now.”

LAACO, which has owned the land since the 1930s, is a public company owned principally by the Hathaway family. LAACO also owns Storage West, the California Yacht Club and an athletic club in Los Angeles. They own other real estate properties as well.

The nonprofit ALC was established by Harriett Burgess in 1990 with the intention to acquire the lower Topanga area. At the time, the value of the property was deemed too high and the organization too small.

Currently, the property is going through a process of appraisal to establish its value, but that value may be changing because of some shifts in the political winds. A significant part of the value of the Topanga property is the commercial strip along PCH, which is currently zoned R-3 and C-2 by L.A. County. It is a mixed-use zoning that would allow for condos, hotels and businesses near the beach. Although the postal address is Malibu, the land is still within the boundaries of unincorporated L.A. County.

The L.A. County Plan, which set the zoning back in 1986, is about to be revised by L.A. County, suggesting that permissible density may be lowered because of perceived traffic and sewer problems. Sources also said the property owner has been lobbying against the new coastal zoning plan in the works. LAACO, in several meetings with county planners, requested that the county leave the zoning as is.

Laura Shell, planning deputy for L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said Malibu would be negatively impacted by additional development in the area. R-3 is considered intense for the area, which is a flood plain, said Shell.

The State Parks Dept. also has concerns about environmental and pollution problems that exist on the property, but from a different perspective. They see problems from existing development.

There have been many past cases where heavy rains in the canyons have caused septic tanks to overflow and spill into creeks polluting local beaches, said Sterns.

Another problem State Parks is trying to avoid is a repeat of the Crystal Cove situation. The department acquired the property 25 years ago and it is still not available to the public because some residents still live there.

Sterns said right now the Los Angeles basin has one of the fewest number of park acres per capita in the nation, and the acquisition would make more open space available to a metropolitan public that needs it.