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Ahmanson Ranch Sale Talks OKd

Times Staff Writer

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy on Monday authorized negotiations to purchase the Ahmanson Ranch, a 2,800-acre rolling tract in eastern Ventura County that conservationists have long sought to preserve as parkland.

For two months, state officials have been discussing a possible deal with ranch owner Washington Mutual, whose plan to build a 3,050-home golf course project on the property has been blocked for years by legal challenges.

Following an hourlong public hearing Monday night, the conservancy board voted unanimously to authorize Executive Director Joseph Edmiston to acquire the Ahmanson Ranch property.

During the hearing in Calabasas, more than 100 people turned out to urge the board to purchase the oak-studded ranch property on the Los Angeles County line.Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, one of 22 speakers who addressed the board, said that after a decade of fighting, the time had come for the conservancy to take the lead in acquiring the land.

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“I speak for the thousands of Ventura County residents who have worked tirelessly to get to the point where we are now,” Bennett said.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the west San Fernando Valley, also joined in urging the board to move ahead.

Yaroslavsky said that the Ahmanson Ranch, with its rolling hills, was an obvious extension of the neighboring Santa Monica Mountains.

“This is one of the most precious pieces of property left in this area,” he said.

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“We have spent tens of millions of dollars protecting this area. Not to acquire this property would put that entire investment at risk.”

If all goes well, a purchase agreement could be reached by late September, said Rorie Skei, chief deputy director of the conservancy, which buys and oversees land in the mountains surrounding the San Fernando Valley.

No purchase price has been set and Washington Mutual has not committed to a sale. The Seattle-based company declined to comment on the conservancy’s action or the state of discussions.

Talks between Washington Mutual and the conservancy were initiated this summer by California Resources Agency Secretary Mary Nichols.

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The $2-billion Ahmanson Ranch development project was first approved in 1992 by Ventura County supervisors, but has been stalled ever since by more than a dozen lawsuits, studies of a rare frog and wildflower, and by a costly, high-profile campaign led by Hollywood celebrities.

Acquisition of the ranch would put into public hands the largest privately owned parcel in the mountains surrounding the San Fernando Valley.

The recent discussions represent the first time Washington Mutual has agreed to explore the possible sale of the ranch, which it acquired when it bought H.F. Ahmanson Co. in 1998. State parks officials have said they think a deal could be reached if Washington Mutual were a willing seller.

The Ahmanson Ranch land is valued at $300 million or more. Much of the money would come from Proposition 50, passed last year by voters for land and wildlife preservation. At least $336 million is available for projects in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

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Mary Wiesbrock, the activist who started the fight against the Ahmanson Ranch project a decade ago, said in an interview during Monday’s hearing that she is optimistic about the prospect of acquiring the ranch as parkland.

“This is very exciting,” she said. “It’s an ecological treasure. We’re very appreciative of the governor’s and the state’s efforts to save Ahmanson Ranch.”


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