A judge denied an environmental group's request Thursday to stop a state parks agency from making a $10-million payment to developers of the proposed Ahmanson Ranch housing development near Agoura Hills.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen E. O'Neil refused to issue a temporary restraining order against the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy after hearing arguments by its attorney and counsel for the environmental group Save Open Space.
The group, which opposes the Ahmanson Ranch project, had asked for the order to stop payment to Potomac Investment Associates until a lawsuit SOS filed against the conservancy has a full hearing. O'Neil scheduled a Jan. 24 hearing on the lawsuit.
Rosemary D. Woodlock, the environmental group's attorney, argued that the conservancy had no authority to transfer public funds to Potomac under the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act because the parkland it wants to acquire is tied to the Ahmanson project and a larger park acquisition deal involving entertainer Bob Hope. Woodlock contended that because the environmental review has not been completed on the proposed housing project, the conservancy violated state law.
But O'Neil rejected the argument, stating that the $10-million purchase agreement between the conservancy and the developer had no apparent connection to the 2,600-house development. He said he felt that the payment was for the acquisition of a specific piece of property.
"We're obviously extremely pleased with the outcome," said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy. "I think this bodes well for us."
Edmiston said that the money that the conservancy agreed to pay to Potomac--the developer working with Hope--will go toward the purchase of Hope's property in Liberty Canyon near Agoura Hills or Corral Canyon near Malibu.
The conservancy's board of directors decided Dec. 16 to authorize the payment, which Edmiston said could occur within the next three weeks. The money ultimately would go to Hope, who owns more than 7,000 acres of mountain property that would be sold to state and federal parks agencies as part of a development agreement.
The conservancy decided to make the payment to Potomac after the Ventura County Board of Supervisors commented favorably on the Ahmanson Ranch housing project in early December and voted to give it a speedy review.
The supervisors said the project was preferable to two initial proposals by Potomac and the Ahmanson Land Co. Potomac originally planned to build 750 houses and a Professional Golfers' Assn. course on Hope's Jordan Ranch east of Thousand Oaks, while Ahmanson planned to build 1,850 houses and 400,000 square feet of office and commercial space on nearby Ahmanson Ranch.
The developers have proposed combining the housing projects on Ahmanson Ranch. If the 2,600-house development is approved, Hope will sell 7,363 acres of his mountain property to state and federal parks agencies for $29.5 million. Ahmanson Land Co. would donate another 3,025 acres to parks agencies as part of the deal.
Edmiston said that the conservancy decided to make the $10-million payment to Potomac because it wants to ensure that, even if the Ahmanson housing project falls through, the agency ends up with some parkland.
"It's a damn good deal even if Ahmanson doesn't go through," he said. "The Ventura County Board of Supervisors can sleep a little easier knowing they can make a decision either way and still have one pretty piece of property that will be in public ownership."
But members of Save Open Space said that the conservancy is simply trying to push the larger land deal forward along with the housing project. They said that no money should be exchanged until the development has been approved by the county.
SOS member Siegfried Othmer said his organization is not trying to prevent the acquisition of the 10,000 acres of parkland. He said the group just believes that the developers should look for alternative sites for the housing project.