Coveted oceanfront land will become a nature preserve

The scene from the privately owned ridgelines northwest of Malibu shows an unimpeded shoreline where the forces of nature continue to unfold: mist silhouetted against steep slopes scented with seashore sage that hasn’t changed since the Chumash Indians preyed upon them roamed for centuries.

The only sounds are the surf pounding against the base of fortress-like mountains, with panoramic views of dolphins, sea lions, and gray whales swimming about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles.

Decades of litigation tarnish the future of the 1,250 acres of land northwest of the Ventura County line, which biologists considered ecologically valuable and developers considered prime real estate in an area where the median home price is about $5 million.

Among those involved was the late would-be developer Harry Mansdorf, whose family had purchased the property over four decades ago with proceeds from their aircraft business. Their most famous aircraft was the Pregnant Guppy, a bulbous freighter that hauled lunar rocket parts from the West Coast for NASA in the 1960s.

When the court dust settles, would there still be room for wildlife?

A new chapter in the turbulent history of the area known as Deer Creek Beach opened on Friday when the nonprofit conservation group Trust for Public Land announced it had bought the property for about $25 million to move to the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in the biggest growth spurt of all time.

On a recent morning, Guillermo Rodriguez, the trust’s state director, stood on a windswept beach where Deer Creek meets the ocean and said, “Everywhere I look here makes me happy and we are its proud owners.”

Guillermo Rodriguez, director of the California Trust for Public Land, left, and Jody Lyle,

Guillermo Rodriguez, left, California director of the Trust for Public Land, and Jody Lyle, acting superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, stroll through an area acquired by the Trust.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

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The acquisition underscores Southern California’s growing belief that vacant land need not be just another good for winning bidders.

“Protecting places like this,” said Suzanne Goode, a retired environmental scientist, “lets people know what the Southern California coast was like before we started development.”

The Trust for Public Land has acquired 1,300 oceanfront hillside acres above Malibu

A bird at Deer Creek Beach. The acquisition of 1,300 acres of oceanfront land underscores Southern California’s growing belief that vacant land need not be just another good for winning bidders.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Pausing to collect her thoughts, she smiled, then added, “It’s also a big win for the mountain lions.”

Don’t start cheering just yet. It may take another two years of “hard work and planning,” Rodriguez said, to complete the procedures needed to bring the property under National Park Service management.

Project supporters include the National Park Foundation, the nonprofit philanthropic arm of the National Park Service, which provided a $529,000 operating grant, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Leading the charge seizing state funds were Member of Parliament Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks), State Senator Henry Stern (D-Malibu) and State Senator Monique Limon (D-Santa Barbara).

The National Park Service targeted the Mansford property more than 20 years ago as a potential “high value acquisition” because it serves as a natural corridor between the Santa Monica Mountains and the 14,000 hectare Point Magu State Park.

Around the same time, Mansdorf, a former World War II B-24 pilot, drew up plans to develop the mountains by the sea into a resort town with two 18-hole golf courses, a five-star hotel, condominiums and a man-made lake, and land.

People enjoy the warm weather at Deer Creek Beach north of Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway on November 22, 2021.

Surfers at Deer Creek Beach, which is about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

The rocks and gravel removed from the mountaintops to make room for his dream, Mansdorf suggested, would be used as foundation material for a large marina.

However, all that changed after an ownership dispute with a business partner, which a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled in 2009 that he had used threats and fraud to cheat Mansdorf out of his possessions, which included the family home in Beverly Hills belonged.

At 88, the man, who was worth hundreds of millions of dollars three years earlier, was “living on his World War II pension looking for 99-cent tacos,” according to an attorney.

Mansdorf died in 2012 but left no will. More lawsuits followed.

The Trust for Public Land has acquired 1,300 oceanfront hillside acres above Malibu

A view of the acquired property south of Point Mugu. “Protecting places like this,” said Suzanne Goode, a retired environmental scientist, “lets people know what the Southern California coast was like before we started development.”

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

“Several conservation groups rushed at the property,” Rodriguez said, “but they eventually backed down because a clear title was the focus of lawsuits, attorneys, creditors, potential developers, court judgments, and liens.”

The clouds cleared in 2018 when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge found that the number of applicants had dropped from five to two: County Line LLC, owner of the property; and the principal lienholder on the property.

“We were the first to pick up the phone and express an interest in buying the land,” Rodriguez recalls. “It turned out to be a very, very complex transaction.”

The Trust intends to raise an additional $5 million needed to get public access up and running with a number of proposed improvements.

These include the restoration of a crumbling concrete stairway that leads from parking lots along the Pacific Coast Highway to a sandy and rocky beach below, and construction of a section of the Coastal Slope Trail, a 70-mile trail network stretching from Topanga State Park to the Point Magu State extends park.

The Trust for Public Land has acquired 1,300 oceanfront hillside acres above Malibu

A weathered staircase at Deer Creek Beach. The National Park Service targeted the Mansford property more than 20 years ago as a potential “high value acquisition” because it serves as a natural corridor between the Santa Monica Mountains and the 14,000 hectare Point Mugu State Park.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, the Trust intends to conserve 384 acres of environmentally degraded escarpments, spring basins and mesas at the Banning Ranch oil field in a separate $97 million acquisition being completed approximately 70 miles to the south. This Newport Beach project is expected to become public property in December.

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

https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-11-06/coveted-oceanfront-land-will-become-a-nature-preserve Coveted oceanfront land will become a nature preserve

Alley Einstein

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