An environmental group opposed to the massive Ahmanson Ranch housing project in eastern Ventura County plans to file a lawsuit today to block a state park agency from giving the project's developers a $10-million down payment toward the purchase of parkland.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that purchases parkland in the Santa Monica and Santa Susana mountains, agreed earlier this month to transfer $10 million in public funds to Potomac Investment Associates.
Potomac is a developer working with entertainer Bob Hope, who owns more than 7,000 acres that would be sold to park agencies in the deal.
Although the transfer has not yet taken place, the conservancy agreed to make the down payment after the Ventura County Board of Supervisors commented favorably on the housing project and voted to give it a speedy review.
The supervisors said the combined project was preferable to two initial proposals to build 750 houses and a PGA golf course on the Jordan Ranch in the hills east of Thousand Oaks and 1,850 houses on the nearby Ahmanson Ranch.
The conservancy and a federal park agency have agreed to purchase more than 7,000 acres from Hope for $29.5 million. Ahmanson Land Co. would donate another 3,025 acres to park agencies. The deal is contingent upon the supervisors' approving the project of 2,600 houses, two golf courses and 400,000 square feet of office and commercial space planned for the Ahmanson Ranch.
But Save Open Space, the Agoura Hills-based environmental group opposed to the development, said "the loan of $10 million" violates procedures outlined in the California Environmental Quality Act.
Rosemary Woodlock, an attorney for the group, said the conservancy "is not authorized to make loans to developers." She said there are no safeguards to protect the public funds should the developer go bankrupt.
Furthermore, she said, the conservancy overstepped its bounds by committing funds to the developers when the environmental review of the housing project has yet to be completed. "No entity of the state has the right to make such a decision without an environmental impact report in front of them," she said.
Woodlock said Save Open Space is also concerned that the remaining $19.5 million needed to acquire all of the proposed parkland will come from a state bond issue that has yet to be approved. She said the group is worried that if the bond issue is not approved, the developers will still be able to retain their entitlements.
Conservancy officials could not be reached for comment Monday.
Woodlock said Save Open Space will file a lawsuit against the conservancy today at 1:30 p.m. in Los Angeles Superior Court.
"To prevent any possible damage to the public interest, we are asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order against the conservancy, pending the court's review of this transaction," the group said in a statement.
Supervisor Maria VanderKolk, who proposed the joint venture between the two developers making the large parkland acquisition possible, questioned the validity of the group's legal argument.
"I understand where they're coming from," she said of Save Open Space, a group that was instrumental in helping her get elected last year. "They're doing what they think is right. But I question the validity of it. We'll have to see what the judge says."