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Housing Project Receives Key Vote

Times Staff Writer

The developer of Ahmanson Ranch secured a crucial but mixed blessing Thursday from Ventura County supervisors, who agreed the proposed community abutting Los Angeles County admirably balances the region’s housing needs and environmental concerns.

The board’s 4-1 vote gave owner Washington Mutual Bank the green light to seek the state and federal permits required before construction. But waiting at those agencies and in court will most likely be a persistent coalition of environmentalists, celebrities and neighboring cities opposed to the project.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 21, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 342 words Type of Material: Correction
Ahmanson Ranch -- A story in Friday’s California section on the Ahmanson Ranch project incorrectly stated that a toxic chemical was recently found on the ranch property. In fact, traces of the chemical perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, were found in wells on land adjacent to the development site.

“We always hope there won’t be litigation, but that might be a false hope here,” said Steve Weston, the developer’s chief attorney.

Indeed, almost immediately after the Board of Supervisors voted to certify a second environmental study of the 3,050-home project, officials in Calabasas and the city and county of Los Angeles said they will probably file legal challenges next month to overturn the supervisors’ decision. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said he remains concerned the project would degrade the surrounding environment.

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The project’s neighbors contend the updated study is flawed because it did not update 10-year-old traffic studies or fully consider the recent discovery of a contaminated well near the property.

Ventura County “has clearly shown blatant disregard for its neighbors and their best interests,” Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine said. “This project is a disaster in the making.”

Ahmanson Ranch’s critics say they would prefer to meet the developer at the negotiating table, not in a courtroom, to craft a deal preserving the ranchland as a park.

“We believe that it is not only in the best interest of the public but in the best business interest of Washington Mutual Bank to sell this land to a conservancy at a fair price,” said Chad Griffin, campaign manager for Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch.

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Thursday’s vote maintains, if not boosts, the enormous value of the ranch’s 2,800 undeveloped acres. Estimates range from $100 million to $500 million, but Washington Mutual insists it has no intention of selling.

“Our plans are the same as they always have been,” Weston said.

The proposal to develop Ahmanson Ranch was first approved in 1992 by a different group of Ventura County supervisors. As part of the deal, the National Park Service and the state Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy became owners of 10,000 acres of Ahmanson and adjacent ranches, preserving the grassy hills and oak savanna overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

That did not satisfy open-space activists, who have unsuccessfully challenged the project in court and before government boards ever since. Their cause got a lift in recent years from film director Rob Reiner and friends, who have bankrolled the campaign and enlisted state legislators, members of Congress and even Bill Clinton and Al Gore to oppose the $2-billion development.

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Ventura County Supervisor Judy Mikels said Thursday the “very slick” campaign failed to change her mind on Washington Mutual’s “exceedingly good project.”

“I’m very disconcerted by outside officials getting into local issues,” she said. “They’ll get their chance.”

Before it can build its community, Washington Mutual must secure permits from the state Department of Fish and Game, state Regional Water Quality Control Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To varying degrees, all of those stops are potential roadblocks.

The environmental study Ventura County supervisors evaluated Thursday was a supplement to the original 1992 analysis. It was primarily a plan for protecting the endangered red-legged frog and San Fernando Valley spineflower, which were discovered on the property three years ago.

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But the development’s opponents used the public hearing to reexamine traffic projections and other effects.

They also asked supervisors to order a study of perchlorate, a cancer-causing component of rocket fuel, that was detected in July in a well proposed for irrigating the development’s two golf courses. The opponents cited bygone rocket-testing at Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory as the likely source of the contaminant. Scientists at the lab dispute that argument.

After a three-day parade of experts hired by opponents and the developer, supervisors expressed concern over perchlorate contamination in California but doubted the chemical poses any danger to the Ahmanson project.

Just destroy the well, the supervisors told the developer, and find another way to water the project’s golf courses and don’t tap any nearby wells if they are contaminated.

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Opponent Griffin said the supervisors had ignored an opportunity to protect the public from perchlorate. “They chose to pass the buck” to state and federal agencies, he said.

The supervisors’ decision followed 16 hours of testimony. So voluminous were the documents that Supervisor Frank Schillo could barely be seen over boxes of paper as he explained his support for the development.

Schillo is leaving office in 17 days, and Ahmanson’s opponents had hoped to delay the supervisors’ vote until the inauguration of his successor, slow-growth ally Linda Parks.

As it turned out, the 4-1 vote suggested the delay would not have helped the opposition. Board Chairman John Flynn and Supervisor Kathy Long joined Schillo and Mikels in certifying the environmental study and a tract map of the development’s first phase.

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The lone dissenter, Steve Bennett, said he wanted to see an updated traffic study. Traffic has not been measured since the 1992 analysis, and Washington Mutual maintains the projections are close enough to today’s reality.

In an unusual move Thursday, the supervisors added to their approval a requirement that the developer “consider” ways to assist Ventura County in creating affordable housing for its many farm workers.

“We need your help,” said Flynn, who proposed the requirement.


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