Advancing a Free Society

Funny Girl, Sad Tale of State Government

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ordinarily a cash-strapped state looking to unload some prime acreage near the Pacific Ocean would seem a marriage of convenience – unless the wedding party includes the State of California, Barbra Streisand, and a bunch of angry folks dwelling in Malibu.

Our story begins in December 1993, when Streisand donated her 22.5-acre ranch in the Malibu Hills to the state. She had tried and failed for years to move the property – her original $19 million asking price dropping to $11.9 million to no avail. Not even Michael Jackson was interested.

Enter California state officials, who gladly took the property off the star’s hands. The state promised that the land would be set aside as an environmental think tank, to be called the Streisand Center.

It’s safe to assume that, in addition to glowing headlines for her philanthropy (the donation was hailed as something akin to Will Rogers’ estate turning over a vast portion of the Pacific Palisades to the state), Streisand also got a healthy tax write-off – as much as $15 million, according to some reports, though the details are sketchy as there’s a question of what dollar-value for the land was submitted to the Internal Revenue (the more modest asking price, or something much rosier).

And financially it came at a very convenient time for the entertainer, who was cash-strapped in the early-1990s according to a biographer and hard-pressed to meet the operating costs of her Malibu spread (which allegedly included an annual $22,000 cost just to water the fire-prone acreage).

Sadly, from here the story is about as arcane as Yentl’s gender.

It turns out that neither Streisand, nor the Santa Monica Conservancy ( which operates out of the locale), nor the state set up any kind of trust to fund the operating costs for the compound’s multiple residences, gardens and grounds. Plans for further development of the land – hiking trails, picnicking, overnight campaign, are tied up in the courts courtesy of displeased Malibu colonists. Streisand herself asked that her name be removed from the endeavor.

So how to move forward, absent the Streisand brand?

One strategy that failed: ditch the think tank and open the property to weddings, movie-shoots and whatever else can take taxpayers off the hook. Weekly tours have been offered (90 minutes, $30 a pop), but apparently there aren’t that many Linda Richman followers willing to make the long trek out to Malibu.

Plan B: sell the land, which is California Gov. Jerry Brown’s intent (a conservative governor would probably want the place razed, as this was the site of La Streisand’s fabled “One Voice” fundraiser for Democratic candidates back in 1986). Tucked inside the “May Revise” to the state budget, under a listing of land with “no programmatic state use”, was this item: “the Ramirez Canyon property in Southern California.” That’s bureaucrat-ese for unloading Streisand’s old property.

So is that the end of the story? Not quite. Park proponents have launched a “Don’t Sell Ramirez Canyon” campaign on You Tube and Facebook. Conservationists are trying to convince Democratic lawmakers to kill the sale plan once the governor actually forwards it. Meanwhile, some neighborhood groups want the land to be sold.

The purpose in detailing all of this isn’t to condemn the idea of land conservation and philanthropy. Well north of the Streisand land, up Hwy 1, the Hearst Castle has done a solid business in the nearly 55 years since the state first was given the estate.

But, in this instance, the Streisand property isn’t as historically significant, or as readily accessible as other state parks. It’s certainly not worthy of taxpayers’ dollars as California weathers massive budget deficits (feel free to guess how many teachers the state could rehire if it sold the land for $12 million, as some believe it would fetch).

Which goes to show that Streisand was right when she sang that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world” – especially when it’s the State of California, relieving a celebrity of a Malibu white elephant.

(photo credit: Jonathan Tommy)