Ventura County Project's Foes Turn to Public in 11th Hour

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While a camera pans over hillsides covered with softly undulating grasses and sprawling oaks, the earnest voice of a young boy implores television viewers to save Ahmanson Ranch.

"This is Ahmanson Ranch, our ancient oak forest, just 26 miles north of downtown Los Angeles," he says gravely. "Home Savings of America, who owns Ahmanson Ranch, is planning to bulldoze this land and destroy forever over 1,000 ancient oak trees."

After several years of unsuccessful legal battles to stop the giant 3,050-home development planned for the eastern boundary of Ventura County, opponents of Ahmanson Ranch are turning to the court of public opinion.

In addition to the sentimental television spot, they have begun hawking their cause on the Internet, are making a mini-documentary on the history of the ranch and have taken to picketing branches of Home Savings, the parent company of Ahmanson Land Co.

This burst of activity is tied to the fact that the court fight against the $1-billion mini-city seems to be finally drawing to an end; after losing two lawsuits and a subsequent appeal, opponents of the development have one more appeal pending in a Ventura County court. That appeal--with the city of Calabasas, Save Open Space and the Mountain View Estates Homeowners Assn. as plaintiffs--will probably be heard this summer.

But the environmentalists are already resigned to losing it. "We expect it to fail," said Vince Curtis, director of Friends of Ahmanson Ranch--a spinoff of Save Open Space--and creator of the 30-second spot.

The activists instead are focusing their wrath on the savings and loan that owns the development company, hoping that Home Savings will quake at any threat to its customer base.

"They have a public image," said Mary Weisbrock, director of Save Open Space. "We want people to know that they are greedy billionaire bullies destroying open space."

But the bulldozers that so worry little Gregory Altmann, the 9-year-old narrator of the commercial and the son of one of the activists--probably won't be revving their engines any time soon.

Even if the litigation is resolved this summer, Home Savings spokeswoman Mary Trigg said Ahmanson has access problems with Los Angeles County and the city of Calabasas that must be resolved before the project can go forward. In addition, the development agreement requires acquisition of two parcels of open space now owned by entertainer Bob Hope.

The environmentalists speculate that wresting that land away from Hope may be unduly complicated and expensive. Some of them believe that Ahmanson will eventually grow weary of the whole mess and return to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors with a scaled-down version of the project. Trigg declined to comment on that possibility.

Trigg said she hasn't seen the commercial, which airs as a public service announcement on cable stations in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. But the bank has not been adversely affected by it or by the sporadic pickets, she said.

"Not at all," Trigg said. "Not in any meaningful way."

Curtis said he has received many phone calls as a result of the spot, more with pledges of volunteer time than actual cash. While he doesn't expect to start a widespread boycott of Home Savings, Curtis said he did get a call from an elderly gentleman who said he was withdrawing a sizable sum, more than $50,000, from Home Savings.

But the 83-year-old bank customer in question, who prefers to remain anonymous, said it wasn't quite like that.

"It was a change I was going to make anyhow, because Home Savings doesn't pay the interest that the other savings and loans and banks are doing," he said. "It accelerated it, but it wasn't the primary reason."

He caught the commercial while watching a country-western TV station in his San Bernardino home. The sweeping vistas reminded him of the California he grew up in, he said, and prompted him to want to do something to preserve what is left of it.

"I kind of felt sorry for those people because they are trying to keep a little bit of nature alive," he said. "I've seen Los Angeles County go to hell in these 83 years."

Trigg called the withdrawal an isolated incident. But the picketing has happened often enough for the bank to brief employees on the controversy in case they are targeted, she said. The most recent picketing was at a branch that opened in a Calabasas supermarket last month. Save Open Space brought along a 15-foot inflatable kangaroo that is on loan from a sympathizer.It has become the group's informal mascot, despite its lack of connection to the local landscape.

Trigg said the activists blended right in with the rest of the crowd at the opening.

"There were so many vendors and card tables, displays and things for kids to do that they didn't overwhelm anything by being there," she said.

At every picket and event, Friends of Ahmanson Ranch and Save Open Space hand out cards addressed to Home Savings chief executive Charles Rinehart and ask people to mail them in. The cards pose questions such as this one to Rinehart: "Is this how you and Home Savings treat its customers in this area? [sic]"

The bank receives cards sporadically, Trigg said, usually no more than a couple a day, and responds to each with a letter outlining the benefits of the project.

"The letter basically talks to them about the fact that a great deal of the land will be devoted to open space," she said.

Of all the touchy issues in a phenomenally complex development deal, open space is perhaps the most controversial.

Home Savings bought the 5,400-acre Ahmanson Ranch in 1963. The company announced plans in 1989 to build a giant new community on a portion of the ranch, including 3,050 homes, two schools and golf courses and 400,000 square feet of commercial and industrial uses.

The property falls entirely within Ventura County, but all planned access roads would spill out onto the freeways through Los Angeles County. In the failed lawsuits, opponents of the project charged that Ventura County would gain all the benefits of development, such as fees and taxes, without suffering any of the consequences, such as congestion and traffic problems.

Included in the development agreement was a provision that 10,000 acres be dedicated to or acquired by the public for open space. About 2,600 acres within Ahmanson Ranch itself would be dedicated as open space, and four other parcels were identified. Of those, two have since been purchased with state and federal funds totaling $26 million: the 2,300-acre Jordan Ranch (now known as Palo Comado Canyon) and 300-acre Liberty Canyon.

The fact that the public paid for the two properties incenses Curtis. He said he had initially been under the impression that Ahmanson would buy and dedicate all four parcels.

"I had heard that the public was getting a free 10,000 acres," Curtis said. "In my mind that made it OK."

The two remaining parcels that must be acquired or donated to the public before Ahmanson can build any of its homes are 4,369-acre Runkle Ranch/Rocky Peak, adjacent to the Simi Valley Freeway, and the 339-acre Corral Canyon in Malibu. Both properties are owned by entertainer Bob Hope, and no one seems to know if he is willing to sell the land, and if so, for how much.

"It's a big wild card," Curtis said. "We don't know where he stands."

Neither does Hope spokesman Ward Grant. He said he doesn't know whether Hope would be willing to sell. And he hasn't been asked yet, Grant said.

"He has zero to do with the Ahmansons and as far as I know he hasn't been approached," Grant said.

Trigg said the company is intent on wrapping up the litigation first before trying to acquire the land. "We have felt that is our No. 1 priority, to get the litigation resolved before we go forward," she said.

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