Not content with angering Democrats over social welfare cuts and enraging Republicans over taxes in his effort to balance the budget, Jerry Brown now has injected himself into what surely must be the gnarliest local land use fight in California.
The battle over a state-owned, sylvan and secluded 22-acre celebrity property in Ramirez Canyon, nestled in the foothills above Malibu, pits rich liberal Democrat against rich liberal Democrat in an epic 18-year feud that’s quietly generated countless hours of hearings before state, regional and local agencies, left behind a massive and Byzantine public record replete with the three most feared words in the English language – Joint Powers Authority – and spun off uncounted zillions in legal fees for most of the blue-chip lawyers south of the Tehachapis.
Now into this political and legal tangle steps Governor Gandalf, determined to make a few bucks for the state by selling off the luxury property, which served the not-so-rustic getaway needs of the diva Barbra Streisand, before she donated it to the state in 1993.
That’s when the troubles began.
Ranger Joe, power broker: The current chapter started with Brown’s release of his May Revise budget plan. Among other things, it projected potential revenue from dumping what the Department of Finance calls “properties that serve no state programmatic need.”
The wily and resourceful Anthony York ably detailed the governor’s move in a Sunday piece that duly noted ex-governor Schwarzscandal’s failed similar attempt to sell a host of other properties.
As a political matter, the controversy provides a case study that not only illustrates the maddeningly minute complexities woven throughout the budget, but also demonstrates how each and every line item in the massive document apparently comes fully equipped with its own fierce band of special interest sponsors and rooters.
In the instant case, the special interest pleaders are made manifest in the considerable bulk of Joseph Edmiston, the bearded, rotund and politically connected $81,000 executive director of the state’s Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a post to which he was first appointed in 1980 by – oh, the irony! – Governor Jerry Brown I.
Given to wearing Smokey the Bear hats and ranger uniforms, Edmiston proceeded from that puny base of operations over the following decades to acquire ever-more parkland and ever-more power, as he constructed a far-flung, interlocking network of nine joint powers authorities, using ways and means so arrogant, aggressive, single-minded and, at times, ruthless, that he’s been compared to Robert Moses, the famed power broker who transformed New York City.
From a 2005 Los Angeles Magazine piece:
Joe Edmiston could well be the most powerful unelected official in California…
There is hardly a large, privately held parcel of rural land in Southern California that he doesn’t have his eye on…
The history of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is Joe Edmiston’s history – he’s the only boss the organization has ever had. During that time he has brokered, threatened, cajoled, lobbied, networked, orchestrated, and generally outplanned, outthought and outfought anyone who has stood in the way of the acquisition, restoration, and opening to the public of 55,000 acres of once-private land.
At the time, Herself decreed that her $15 million gift “is to provide a location and facilities for the establishment of the Streisand Center for Conservancy Studies,” and instructed that Edmiston’s crew “will plan and operate the Center as a place for advanced academic and applied studies directed towards solution of the most pressing conservation and natural ecosystem management problems, and will carefully evaluate all relevant issues related to its use, including vehicular access and impact on the neighboring community” (emphasis ours).
It wasn’t long, however, before Streisand’s former neighbors were up in arms at what Edmiston did with the property; the place was outfitted with swell executive offices, while the conservancy began conducting tours and offering the site for hire for weddings, fundraisers and other events with hundreds of guests.
The acreage is at the end of a narrow, winding one mile private road, only 13-feet wide in some places, pocked with speed bumps and passing over Ramirez Creek, which is impassable in times of heavy rain. Documents also show that it’s located in a designated “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone,” with only one means of ingress and egress.
These natural conditions naturally led neighbors concerned about emergency evacuation at times of fire or flood to bend Streisand’s ear about demanding Edmiston knock off his plans for the property.
In 2000, during one of the innumerable and interminable hearings on the matter, Streisand sent a letter stating her belief that the conditions of her donation had been violated by the activities of the conservancy and removing her name from its operations.
Since the property was donated in 1993, the conservancy has decided to set up an administrative office on the property and have conducted events to help defray the costs of administration and upkeep of the property. My former neighbors have contacted me in the past to keep me apprised of their feelings and points of view…However, while the Center has historically carried my name, I have had no control over its ongoing activities and operations since the time the land was donated…
In summary, I am not in agreement with the proposed use of the land, my name will no longer be affiliated with the property, and I ask you to give every consideration to the concerns of my neighbors and the community.
Jerry vs. the status quo: Many legal bills and reams of testimony later, Edmiston and the conservancy are still hunkered down, enmeshed in ongoing litigation with some of the Malibu crowd.
Calculating the political and economic cost-benefit ratio, it will be instructive to see how willing Brown is to get tangled up on behalf of the public interest in the most complicated and longest-running dispute since Jarndyce and Jarndyce – and how much success he has with his sell-everything-including-the-fixtures real estate sideshow.
Which, according to Anthony York’s reporting, may not be too far:
State Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills), a former director of governmental affairs for the conservancy who used to work at the disputed property, said the governor’s plan would probably die in the Legislature. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
On the other hand, Streisand herself suddenly resurfaced on Tuesday to give her blessing to Brown’s plan to sell the land. Who knows, maybe the whole thing’s just getting started.