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Ahmanson Land Deal on Verge of Collapsing


In a move that threatens to kill the massive Ahmanson Ranch housing project in eastern Ventura County, the National Park Service withdrew $19.5 million Friday that had been set aside to buy thousands of acres of mountain land as part of the complex development deal.

David Gackenbach, regional superintendent of the park service, said he requested that the money be withdrawn from escrow immediately because partners in the $1-billion project have failed to close the deal despite three months of negotiations.

"Enough is enough," Gackenbach said. "There has been sufficient time for them to do all they need to do."

Representatives of the three parties to the development--Ahmanson Land Co., entertainer Bob Hope and Potomac Investment Associates--could not be reached for comment Friday.

Approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in December, the Ahmanson Ranch project would create a mini-city of 8,600 residents in the rolling Simi Hills. And it would turn over 10,000 acres of mountain land--7,000 owned by Hope--to the National Park Service and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state park agency.

The board's approval is contingent upon the mountain property being placed into public ownership.

The park service holds the linchpin for the deal because it is providing $19.5 million of the $29.5 million that Hope will receive from the park agencies for three of his ranch properties.

Gackenbach said Ahmanson Land Co. had promised to sign final development agreements soon after the project was approved. But negotiations have dragged on for months, with Ahmanson ignoring numerous deadlines set by the park service.

The deal has been delayed because Hope, Ahmanson and Potomac have not been able to agree on how to split up profits from the massive housing development, county officials said.

Ahmanson has maintained for months that its profit margin from the deal is being whittled away by a bad economy, nine lawsuits, unexpectedly high demands for payouts from the nearby cities of Los Angeles, Calabasas and Malibu, and a $20-million demand from Los Angeles County for road improvements.

Ventura County Supervisor Maria VanderKolk, the county official most involved in the project, said Friday that the deal could easily fall apart because of the lawsuits filed against Ahmanson.

"This deal has been in jeopardy for weeks," she said. "I know Ahmanson is not willing to move further along at this time because of the lawsuits."

The supervisor said that some of the lawsuits against the developer are scheduled to be heard in Los Angeles Superior Court in November.

If the Ahmanson deal collapses, VanderKolk said she hopes the park service would still be able to use the $19.5 million to purchase Hope's 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch east of Thousand Oaks and his 339-acre Corral Canyon property near the Pacific Ocean. Both properties are included in the Ahmanson package.

But there is no guarantee that Hope would agree to that.

Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said he remains "cautiously optimistic" that the Ahmanson deal is still alive.

Gackenbach said he would put the National Park Service's money back into escrow only if Ahmanson gave him a written and legally binding guarantee that the deal had been sealed.

Otherwise, he said, the money would probably be used to complete the purchase of the 314-acre Paramount Ranch in Agoura. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has already placed a down payment of $4.3 million on the $17.5-million ranch, located just north of Mulholland Highway.

Meanwhile, the conservancy has taken steps to ensure that it does not lose the chance to acquire at least some of Hope's mountain property should the Ahmanson deal fall through.

On Wednesday, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the acquisition arm of the conservancy, voted to work out a backup plan to buy first rights to Hope's Runkle Ranch property if the development deal collapses. The property, 4,369 acres northeast of Simi Valley, is now included in the Ahmanson deal.

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