Groups Plan Suit Over Ahmanson

Times Staff Writer

Several environmental groups announced Friday they will file a lawsuit alleging that Ventura County officials improperly approved the latest review of the 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch project near Calabasas.

Ventura County supervisors, on a 4-1 vote, approved the environmental analysis last month despite expert testimony that it would worsen air and water pollution and harm wildlife in the area, said John Buse, attorney for the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura.

Buse said his group will file the lawsuit in Ventura County Superior Court on Tuesday. Joining the suit is a high-profile coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Heal the Bay and Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch.

Los Angeles County and the cities of Malibu, Calabasas and Agoura Hills have filed their own lawsuits challenging the supervisors' vote. More filings, including from the city of Los Angeles, are expected next week.

Hollywood director Rob Reiner, who heads up Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, said the lawsuit will show developer Washington Mutual that his group has not given up efforts to stop the project.

Over the past year, Reiner's group has organized pickets and letter-writing campaigns to the Seattle-based bank, demanding that it sell the hilly grasslands overlooking the San Fernando Valley to a conservancy. Bank officials have repeatedly said they have no interest in selling the land.

"If they think they've gotten bad publicity so far, it's going to get a lot worse defending these lawsuits," Reiner said. "At the end of the day, I think they want to be good neighbors."

Washington Mutual spokesman Tim McGarry called the groups' action "planning by lawsuit." The developer and Ventura County took pains to follow all laws and regulations during the recent review period, McGarry said.

"On that basis, we will vigorously defend the project and the county, just as we have in numerous earlier lawsuits brought by many of the same parties to the actions announced [Friday]," he said.

Judy Mikels, chairwoman of the Ventura Board of Supervisors, called the lawsuits a stalling tactic by project opponents.

"They are trying to wear down the Ahmanson company and get them to throw up their hands and walk away," Mikels said. "I don't honestly believe they think they are going to win any of these suits."

Ahmanson Ranch was first approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in 1992. However, a series of lawsuits challenging the approval, and the discovery of the endangered red-legged frog and San Fernando Valley spineflower, delayed construction.

Ventura County officials ordered a second environmental review in 1999 to deal with the presence of the two endangered species.

Supervisors approved that study last month, clearing the way for the project's first phase of construction.

But environmentalists say the county board ignored or downplayed a number of issues that should have led it to reject the follow-up study.

In the lawsuit, they will cite the project's effect on wetlands, a nearby wildlife preserve and on water quality in Malibu Creek, Buse said.

Environmentalists also contend that Ventura County should have ordered more studies to determine if perchlorate, a cancer-causing chemical found in one water well on the site, has contaminated other water sources.

Despite losing earlier challenges, the environmental groups believe that they have a good chance at prevailing this time.

Environmental regulations have tightened in the past decade, said Mark Gold, an attorney for Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based environmental group.

And the recent environmental review shed light on new concerns, such as the inadequacy of proposed protections for the frog and spineflower, Gold said.

Malibu and Agoura Hills filed a joint lawsuit this week. Calabasas filed its own suit Thursday.

All three cities are alleging inadequate review of the project. Katherine Stone, who is representing Calabasas, said she expects the many Ahmanson Ranch-related lawsuits will be assigned to one judge to avoid conflicting decisions.

Stone plans to either ask for a change of venue or that a neutral judge be appointed by the state Supreme Court.


Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and Stephanie Stassel contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 563 words Type of Material: Correction Ahmanson Ranch -- An article in Saturday'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 a well on land adjacent to the development site.
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