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Park Service Threatens to Pull Out of Ahmanson Deal : Land swap: Officials warn the project could collapse if papers involving land acquisition aren’t ready by March 31.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frustrated by delays, the federal government threatened Friday to withdraw its share of the funding for the Ahmanson Ranch purchase if the complicated deal is not completed by March 31--a threat that key negotiators say could scuttle the whole project if carried out.

The deal, which involves both a massive private development and transfers of thousands of acres to the National Park Service, is facing nine lawsuits and unexpected financial demands.

The paperwork snarl pushed negotiations well past a Jan. 12 deadline. That led David Gackenbach, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and regional superintendent for the Park Service, to set the new deadline Friday.

If papers are not ready to sign by the end of the month, he said, the parks agency will withdraw the $19.5 million it set aside to carry out its part of the deal.

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The Ventura County Board of Supervisors in December gave Ahmanson the green light to build a $1-billion mini-city in the Simi Hills. But the supervisors linked their approval to a side deal, in which entertainer Bob Hope would abandon plans to develop nearby Jordan Ranch and instead sell 7,437 acres of rugged open space to public parks agencies.

In exchange for dropping his dream of a luxury development and world-class golf course on oak-studded Jordan Ranch, Hope will reap an undisclosed financial interest in the Ahmanson development.

With nine lawsuits threatening to delay the project for up to five years, however, the entertainer is having second thoughts about handing over his land, said Donald Brackenbush, president of the Ahmanson Land Co. If he sells the property and then a judge blocks the Ahmanson project, Hope will be left with $29.5 million from park agencies but without additional revenue from the Ahmanson project.

“In Bob Hope’s mind, the $29.5 million is a down payment” for handing over Jordan Ranch, Brackenbush said. “It’s not all billy goat country. It has a substantial amount of value, more than $30 million.”

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Hope’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Before Ahmanson can begin building a single house, Hope’s property must be transferred to the public domain and permanently protected as open space, according to a development agreement approved by Ventura County supervisors in December. That can’t happen if the park service withdraws its money.

Although parks officials have been eager for years to acquire the land, which would secure a critical wildlife corridor, Gackenbach warned that his patience has almost expired.

“It’s ridiculous to have money sitting around in escrow not earning interest,” Gackenbach said. “There is land out there to be bought . . . and prices are more reasonable than ever.”

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While insisting they are optimistic the March 31 deadline will be met, principal negotiators this week expressed considerable frustration and concern.

“I thought it was a 100-yard dash and it turns out to be a marathon,” Brackenbush said. Even Fred Maas, a representative of Hope’s development firm, Potomac Investment Associates, has grown increasingly frustrated. Asked if the deal is in danger of collapsing, Maas responded: “I don’t know. It would be a real tragedy if it does.”

In part, the deal has stalled because three-way negotiations are so complex. Legal documents already stack as thick as a Los Angeles telephone directory, Maas said, adding, “When you have more than two lawyers involved, what should take two hours takes two months.”

But the deal faces a more serious hurdle. Nine lawsuits from environmentalists, homeowners and government agencies have been filed to stop the giant development, which would include 3,050 dwellings, commercial space, schools and government buildings.

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Objecting to the mini-city because of increased traffic and pollution, Los Angeles County has demanded that the developer pay $20 million to shore up roads feeding into the Ahmanson Ranch, Brackenbush said. The city of Calabasas has insisted on $5 million in compensation for an anticipated strain on its services.

These unanticipated fees place an “enormous economic burden” on the developers, Brackenbush said.

“I keep saying we’ll (close the deal) Monday, Tuesday, before the end of the week,” he added. “I think there’s more than a 50% chance, but I can’t tell you it’s 98%. Every Friday, I hope that by Monday we’ll have an answer.”

Times staff writer Daryl Kelley contributed to this story.

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