Suit Against U.S. Aims to Use Rare Plant to Block Developer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five environmental groups and the city of Calabasas have sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, hoping to block the development of Ahmanson Ranch by getting a rare plant on the site listed as endangered.

Although the courts can't give the San Fernando Valley spineflower protected status, a U.S. District Court judge could force the Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision, said John Buse, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura.

Buse's group brought the suit on behalf of the California Native Plant Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Heal the Bay and Save Open Space. The groups oppose the proposed 3,050-home project that would be built in eastern Ventura County just northwest of Calabasas.

Last year, under then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Fish and Wildlife Service did not take action on the spineflower despite pressure from environmentalists. The spineflower is one of about 250 candidates for federal protection. But the agency has halted the listing of species, saying litigation over other matters has drained its resources. That remains the agency's position, a spokesman said Wednesday. He declined to comment on the Environmental Defense Center's lawsuit.

Once believed extinct, the spineflower has been found during the last two years at Ahmanson Ranch and also at the Newhall Ranch site in Los Angeles County, where a 22,000-home project is planned.

Babbitt, a Clinton appointee who left when the Bush administration took over, signed on recently as a consultant to Ahmanson Ranch's developers, Washington Mutual Inc. That move angered many local environmentalists and stirred accusations that there was pressure within the government to keep the spineflower from being protected.

Buse said the lawsuit was in the works before news of Babbitt's involvement with Washington Mutual. Babbitt, who is not named in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment.

Washington Mutual spokesman Adrian Rodriguez said the developer has made no effort to influence the Fish and Wildlife Service's position.

"We've not opposed the listing in the past and we're not opposing it now," he said.

Rodriguez said even if the spineflower were listed as an endangered species, the project would go forward. In any case, he said, the company is treating the spineflower as if it were endangered and is committed to protecting it.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Manuel Real of the Central California District, according to the court clerk's office in Los Angeles. Buse said the Environmental Defense Center prevailed with Real in 1995, when it was seeking protection for the California red-legged frog, now listed as a threatened species.

Although that case did not involve Ahmanson Ranch, the frog also has been found there--an additional hurdle for the developer as the project goes forward.

Ahmanson Ranch was approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in 1992 but has been bogged down by more than a dozen lawsuits. Save Open Space Director Mary Wiesbrock, one of the plaintiffs in the latest case, said if the spineflower can't stop the project, opponents will look for another plan of attack.

"The lawsuits will be endless," she said. "They'll be totally endless."

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The Spineflower Goes to Court

Groups opposed to the development of Ahmanson Ranch have filed a suit that they hope will block the project by getting the spineflower declared an endangered species.

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ahmanson Ranch

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