Hearing Spurs Ahmanson Ranch Opponents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just about everyone who's anyone in West Valley politics turned out for a packed hearing Saturday on Ahmanson Ranch, signaling a united Los Angeles front against the 3,050-home project planned on the fringes of Ventura County.

Though billed as an informational hearing, it was more of a workshop aimed at keeping local opponents informed on the latest twists in a complex, decade-long development saga. Next month, Ventura County is due to release a supplemental report on the project's environmental impact.

More than 500 residents crowded the auditorium at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills on Saturday morning to listen to lawmakers probe and prod the development from every conceivable angle.

They talked of storm-water management and daily car trips, habitat conservation and hillside erosion.

At one point, the local head of Caltrans, barraged by legal questions, protested: "I'm not an attorney. I'm an engineer."

But the meeting did yield one new bit of ammunition for Los Angeles County: a legal opinion from the state's legislative counsel that may affect the extent of future environmental reviews.

Essentially, the opinion was that the California Environmental Quality Act supersedes local development agreements. In the Ahmanson case, Los Angeles officials said, the developer could be required to do more to offset potential environmental damage.

Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), who requested the opinion and sponsored Saturday's hearing, said a new environmental review should be undertaken instead of relying on a 9-year-old document.

"I hope [Ventura County officials] recognize there were significant changes" since they approved the project in 1992, she said.

Among the changes was the recent discovery of the rare San Fernando Valley spineflower and the California red-legged frog on the project site. On Thursday, the California Fish and Game Commission declared the spineflower an endangered species.

Traffic projections have been revised upward. Ahmanson Ranch is now expected to add 22,600 vehicle trips a day to the Ventura Freeway, said California Department of Transportation District Director Robert Sassaman.

But when Ventura County supervisors agreed to prepare a supplemental environmental report, they declined to seek a new traffic study. Now, Los Angeles lawmakers are hinting that if the new report does not satisfy their concerns, they may sue.

"I wouldn't rule it out," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the West Valley. Yaroslavsky hailed the legal opinion sought by Pavley, saying it frees Ventura County to reopen environmental questions and to require more mitigation from the developer.

"Those who want to preserve Ahmanson Ranch are back in the game," Yaroslavsky said.

But Ahmanson attorney Steven Weston downplayed the significance of the legal opinion. "There has never been any suggestion that the development agreement does not comply with state law," he said.

Also attending the hearing were Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), Los Angeles Councilman Dennis Zine and Calabasas Mayor Janice Lee, as well as several high-ranking officials from planning and environmental agencies.

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