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HOMEOWNERS FENCED OUT BY CONSERVANCY.

Byline: Kerry Cavanaugh Staff Writer

A group of hillside landowners has declared war on the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which they claim is trying to squelch development by refusing to grant them access to their property through the new Michael D. Antonovich Regional Park.

Linda Corbridge said gates and barriers now prevent her from driving over dirt roads to the half-million-dollar property north of Chatsworth, where she wants to build four homes, including one for herself.

``I would often drive up to look at my property. I never thought it would be a problem,'' Corbridge said. ``In order to get my access back, I have to sue them.''

The Conservancy maintains that it is simply protecting public land by refusing to allow roads and traffic to crisscross the park. They say Corbridge has no legal access and will have to prove in court her right to drive through parkland.

``All the Conservancy did was buy nice parkland,'' said Paul Edelman, deputy director of natural resources and planning for the Conservancy. ``Is it the public's responsibility to carve up parkland to compensate their buying land with poor access?''

It's a tug of war playing out as developers and conservationists vie for fewer and fewer pieces of open space in the hillsides surrounding the San Fernando Valley. This battle over access takes place at the north end of De Soto Avenue in Browns Canyon, a stretch of scrub-covered hillsides and oak woodlands split by a verdant creek.

For years, it was among the conservancy's preservation priorities because it's the northwest headwaters of the Los Angeles River - and a rare patch of wilderness - just a few minutes' drive from the crowded San Fernando Valley floor. They hoped to keep out the big subdivisions sprouting up in Porter Ranch and Simi Valley hillsides.

Browns Canyon remained relatively undeveloped, in part because large tracts were subdivided into tiny parcels, with thousands of owners living throughout the country.

A 375-home subdivision has been tentatively approved for Deerlake Ranch, at the south end of the canyon.

In the 1990s, Deerlake developers began buying small plots with the hope of building a subdivision at the southern end of the canyon. The Conservancy bought 1,300 tax-defaulted lots covering 71 acres.

The Conservancy then swapped some of the Deerlake land at the base of the canyon for acreage further north. As part of the agreement, the Conservancy retained a 10-foot strip of land at the northern boundary of the Deerlake development - and adjacent to the 40-acre parcel that Corbridge eventually purchased.

The purpose of the 10-foot easement was to prevent development from creeping further into the canyon.

``It was our protection that their project wouldn't grow,'' Edelman said. ``It ensures that nobody can put a big monster road in there, like extending Topanga Canyon. That was a big concern.''

But the 10-foot strip also blocks Corbridge from reaching her property. She said she can prove she has the right to drive on Conservancy property because her land and Conservancy land were once owned by the same person and it would be presumed that the land-locked parcel would also have access.

However, that access provision isn't noted in records for the property and that's a big problem for Corbridge, said Steve Weston, a land development attorney and senior partner with the firm Weston Benshoof.

``You have to wonder why someone would buy the property if access was in question,'' he said. If the easement isn't in the property title and the adjacent-land owner refuses access, a judge will have to decide.

In March, the Board of Supervisors asked for a meeting with the Conservancy to discuss the access issues before approving the Deerlake Ranch development. The county staff was asked to develop some possible solutions.

But the 10-foot strip is only one part of the debate. Landowners further north in the canyon say the Conservancy is installing a gate that will lock them out of their property.

Charles Lee and Ed Peters bought about 160 acres in Ybarra Canyon, a lush patchwork of meadows, oak woodlands and streams. They want to develop five-acre ranchettes in the canyon but can't without access.

Like Corbridge, they say they have historical records showing their right to use roads that cross public parkland.

``The fact of the matter is that they are trying to steal our properties,'' Peters said. ``What they'll do is acquire land and lock you out. It's the easiest way to acquire land because some people won't fight or can't afford to fight.''

But Conservancy officials have said the access issue is not their problem. The responsibility lies with landowners who bought property with no recorded access rights.

``Is it our responsibility to hold people's hands that bought land with poor access?'' Edelman asked. ``If everybody who asked for access across public land got it, the land would be destroyed.''

Kerry Cavanaugh, (818) 713-3746

kerry.cavanaugh(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

photo, map

Photo:

Linda Corbridge owns the two Chatsworth hilltops behind her, but she can't get there through Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy land.

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer

Map:

DEVELOPMENT DISPUTE
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 22, 2004
Words:850
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