By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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“You declare yourself a non-profit then you act as a real estate agent,” charged Scott Dittrich, a 30-year resident who pays $1,100 a month for his three-bedroom home.
The ALC is one of a small handful of non-profits that facilitate public purchase of land to be saved for future generations. The groups buy land or lease options, clear away such obstacles as liens or legal problems, then sell the parcels to public agencies.
The ALC and director Harriet Burgess, a politically-connected wheeler-dealer with offices in the swankiest section of San Francisco, were investigated after a land exchange involving an area near Las Vegas called Deer Creek. Burgess and federal bureaucrats had a bargaining session in which she and a client persuaded the government to accept private land appraisals, the inspector general found. The appraisals arti ficially raised the value of the land she was offering the government to an amount more than double what three senior federal appraisers said it was worth, investigators said.
The taxpayers lost nearly $6 million in the deal, while Burgess cleared $2 million, the Seattle Timesreported. Inspectors also found that former Forest Service supervisor Jim Nelson accepted the use of a private Squaw Valley condo over Christmas vacation, and a fishing trip to Canada on a private yacht, from the ALC and other landowners.
“We definitely saw some squirrelly aspects of our land exchange program that needed correcting,” said Chris Wood, senior policy advisor at the U.S. Forest Service.” One of the immediate reforms we enacted was a moratorium on third-party-facilitated exchanges.”
Burgess downplayed the Deer Creek incident. “It is easy to say you paid too much for something,” said Burgess. “It happens. There is one thing that everyone has an opinion on and that is real estate . . . In a more global perspective, it was a small issue.”
But Topanga residents said the ALC and Burgess are at it again, concocting environmental problems to get them off their sites. The ALC claims runoff from their septic tanks has triggered closures below at Topanga Beach. The ALC also charges that their homes threaten steelhead trout in nearby Topanga Creek.
It’s difficult to assess the ALC’s charges. But an end-of-summer report card from the environmental monitoring group Heal the Bay gave Topanga Beach an A for water quality. And Topanga Creek runs only part of the year; on a visit last week, no water was visible in the creekbed.
“If the ALC is compensated in the deal then I think we should definitely know how much, given what happened in Nevada,” said attorney Frank Angel, who represents area residents. “Land values are going to be inflated by the deal. Wouldn't you want to get more public parkland for your buck?”
Dittrich questions whether the state is using the ALC to get out of offering tenants relocation packages. Burgess is cagey about evictions: ”We haven't got into the details about who will be doing the evicting,” she said.
But the state has made it clear it will not buy the land with the tenants on it, said spokesman Roy Stearns.
“We don't want to inherit environmental problems,” said Stearns. “We want it put back to a natural state. We feel that it is a local problem first between the owner and the conservancy.”
“Let people leave by attrition,” Dittrich urged. “That would be the kinder, gentler way.”
But Dittrich's time may be up soon. The ALC is preparing a land appraisal. —Christine Pelisek