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Ahmanson Consultant Criticizes Firm's Plan : Environment: An ecologist also accuses the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy director of glossing over loss of native grassland prairie.


A plant ecologist hired by Ahmanson Land Co. has become a sharp critic of the firm's plans for a huge residential and golf course development in eastern Ventura County, saying the project would destroy a prime remnant of the state's vanishing grassland prairies.

Jon E. Keeley, an Occidental College professor retained by Ahmanson as an environmental consultant, says the project's two proposed golf courses would all but obliterate one of the finest surviving native grasslands in all of Southern California.

In recent letters to Ventura County officials, Keeley and other authorities on native vegetation attacked the development plan, which includes an offer to trade vast parkland acreage for building permits. The letters also accused two key supporters of the deal--Ventura County Supervisor Maria VanderKolk and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston--of glossing over the loss of the grasslands.

This is the first time since the project was proposed last year that the grasslands surfaced as a prominent issue. The proposal has been widely praised as environmentally superior to previous plans to develop both the Ahmanson property and nearby Jordan Ranch.

It also is a rare instance of a consultant biting the hand of a developer-client. Environmental consultants are supposed to provide objective opinions on the likely impacts of development projects. But they rarely go public with concerns or complaints about the plans of those who hire them.

"I was hired to do an assessment of the grasslands there," Keeley said. "I wasn't hired to be an advocate" for Ahmanson.

The project is a joint venture of the Ahmanson firm and Potomac Investment Associates and is under review by Ventura County officials. Originally, both companies sought to build their own big projects--Ahmanson on the Ahmanson Ranch and Potomac on the Jordan Ranch holdings of entertainer Bob Hope.

Facing strong opposition, however, the companies last October announced a merger of the projects that would preserve all of Jordan Ranch and confine development and environmental damage to the Ahmanson tract.

The combined proposal includes 3,100 residences, two golf courses, a hotel and about 500,000 square feet of commercial space on the 5,477-acre Ahmanson Ranch, which borders the Ventura-Los Angeles County line north of the Ventura Freeway. Up to now, the most prominent issues have been the project's size and traffic impacts.

The proposal's appeal has been the developers' offer to donate and sell more than 10,000 acres of mountain land in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, including Jordan Ranch, to the conservancy and the National Park Service for a below-market $29.5 million. Supporters say it would be the state's largest single parkland acquisition in at least 30 years.

But the golf courses would destroy about 400 of 430 acres of native grasslands that authorities have described as a prime example of a plant community that is threatened in California.

Before Europeans arrived, experts estimate, grassland prairie covered 15 million to 20 million acres, or up to 20%, of the state. But over the past two centuries, farming, grazing and development--along with the introduction of non-native weeds and grasses--have reduced native grassland cover to roughly 50,000 acres statewide, said Todd Keeler-Wolf, vegetation ecologist with the natural heritage division of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Even these remnant areas have been invaded by non-native plants. The exotic species are so prevalent that authorities consider any land with at least 10% cover by native grasses to be a native grassland, Keeler-Wolf said.

"It's the . . . one ecosystem that seems to be more highly reduced than any other," he said. "Just that fact alone means that the remaining fragments are extremely important for natural conservation."

Keeley, a professor in the biology department at Occidental in Eagle Rock, was retained by Ahmanson to do an assessment of the grasslands. He concluded that the ranch was among the three finest grassland sites in Southern California, matched only by those at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego County and the Santa Rosa Plateau in Riverside County.

Keeley said the only other significant grassland in the Los Angeles region--in the protected La Jolla Valley area of Point Mugu State Park--is smaller than the one on Ahmanson Ranch.

Keeley said Ahmanson responded to his findings by "dramatically" changing its plans to minimize impact on the grasslands. But when the Potomac merger added a second golf course, officials felt "they no longer had the flexibility to worry about grasslands," Keeley said.

As a result, the combined project would result in "a significant loss of a rare plant community," he said in a report to the company.

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