SIMI VALLEY : Ahmanson Details Nature Institute

The Ahmanson Land Co. on Thursday detailed a proposed nature institute that would restore trees, rare grasses and natural habitats damaged by the company's proposed mini-city in the Simi Hills, while underwriting regional environmental programs.

State and federal park officials and a representative of Gov. Pete Wilson said at a news conference that creation of Ahmanson's Las Virgenes Institute shows how a developer can build a potentially destructive project on park boundaries and still help save plants and wildlife in the area.

But Mary Wiesbrock, a chief critic of the project, said the proposed institute is "simply green window dressing to make something look good that's an environmental disaster."

The Ahmanson project would turn more than 10,000 acres of parkland to state and federal agencies but transform part of the ranch into an upscale community with 3,050 dwellings, a 300-room hotel, two golf courses and a town center.

The new institute would serve several roles--as environmental police, nature educator and research center, Ahmanson President Donald Brackenbush said.

The institute's $300,000 to $425,000 annual budget would be funded in perpetuity, first by Ahmanson and then with $2-a-round golf fees and levies on new structures and resort concessionaires, Brackenbush said.

Institute representatives would serve as a kind of Welcome Wagon for home buyers, informing them of restrictions on kinds of grasses and plants that are allowed and that their animals cannot run free in adjoining parkland.

If residents violate rules by abusing nearby parkland, they will be reprimanded by the institute, he said.

Douglas Wheeler, resources secretary to Gov. Wilson, said the institute is a "very promising development" that will help preserve parkland near urban areas. "It's the only way we're going to achieve our conservation objectives in places like Ventura County," Wheeler said.

An environmental analysis recently found that the project would have unavoidable, significant impacts on air quality, traffic and the area's rural environment. A hearing on the report is set for Oct. 21 in Ventura.

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