Deer Creek property saved from future development by Trust for Public Land

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A couple of hikers are shown on the land above Deer Creek Beach. The nonprofit conservation group Trust for Public Land purchased the area in November with intentions to transfer it to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Photo courtesy of Trust for Public Land.

A new day came to the area known as Deer Creek back on Nov. 4, when the nonprofit conservation group Trust for Public Land announced it had purchased the property for about $25 million with the intention of transferring it to the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA, operated by the National Park Service) — one of its largest local acquisitions ever.

The Trust declared this to be the “largest unprotected stretch of California coastline between Mexico and Santa Barbara” and a “rarity in Southern California.”

Indeed, it’s so remote that it’s been a favorite spot for Mexican pangas to drop off loads of marijuana and undocumented immigrants in the middle of the night for years. A stairway leads from Deer Beach up to PCH. 

Driving west from County Line on Pacific Coast Highway, past Neptune’s Net restaurant and just into Ventura County, lies the 2.2-mile stretch of untouched pristine coastline on both sides of PCH. The 1,242-acre property had been privately owned and was considered to be a prime area for new high-end real estate development. However, the unspoiled land was also coveted by scientists for its strong environmental values and unspoiled habitat for mountain lions and other native wildlife and plants. 

According to the Trust website, the land had been owned by Harry Mansdorf, now deceased, for over four decades. He purchased it with proceeds from his family aircraft business; and about 20 years ago made plans to develop the oceanfront property into a destination resort with two 18-hole golf courses, a five-star hotel, condominiums, a man-made lake, estates, and a marina.

At about the same time 20 years ago, the National Park Service set its sights on the Mansford property as a potentially “high-value acquisition” because it connects their property in the Santa Monica Mountains with the 14,000-acre Point Mugu State Park, and would expand the SMMNRA.

Mansdorf ended up losing his fortune to an unscrupulous business partner, and then died without a will in 2012. Lawsuits followed, and were finally resolved by the courts in 2018.

“Several conservation groups made a run at the property during those years,” Guillermo Rodriguez, the Trust’s state director, told the LA Times. “But they eventually backed off because clear title was the focus of lawsuits, lawyers, creditors, would-be developers, court rulings and liens.”

“We were the first to pick up the phone and express an interest in buying the land from County Line LLC, owner of the property,” Rodriguez explained. “It turned out to be a very, very complex transaction.”

The Trust intends to raise an additional $5 million for public access improvement projects, including restoring a decrepit graffiti-covered stairway from PCH down to the Deer Creek Beach, and building a segment of the Coastal Slope Trail.

Deer Creek will be utilized as a “wild playground,” according to the Trust. 

“During the winter months, whale watchers can enjoy the magical migration patterns of gray and humpback whales through the area, while dolphins and sea lions teem on this largely undisturbed stretch of coastline,” Rodriguez said.

The National Park Foundation (the fundraising arm of the National Park Service) is the Trust’s partner in this acquisition, and provided an operating grant of $529,000. State funds were secured with the help of Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks), then State Sen. Henry Stern (D-Malibu), and State Sen. Monique Limon (D-Santa Barbara).

“Land once thought lost forever to development and industry is being reclaimed for wildlife and the health and well-being of the public,” Rodriguez told the Times. “Conservation in California is arduous, frustrating and expensive, but the results are worth it.”