Utilities for the proposed Ahmanson Ranch project will be provided by a community service district until the development qualifies as the county's 11th city, the Ventura County Local Agency Formation Commission decided Wednesday.
The commissioners unanimously agreed to create the county's fifth service district to manage the 2,800-acre planned community and provide everything from drinking water to street sweeping.
Stanley A. Eisner, the commission's executive director, described the formation of a service district as a transitional step "to the eventual incorporation of a new city for Ahmanson Ranch." The development would have to have at least 500 residents before incorporation could be legally considered, he said.
The Ahmanson project would create a business and residential community of 8,600 residents south of Simi Valley, near the Los Angeles County border.
As part of the commission's action, however, the district will not become operational until all 10,000 acres of open space promised by the developer are transferred to public ownership.
Only two of the four proposed land exchanges spelled out in the complex Ahmanson Ranch development agreement have been completed so far. The National Park Service paid $16.7 million for the 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch this spring, while the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy spent $10 million last year to acquire a 400-acre tract in Liberty Canyon.
Remaining to be purchased are 339 acres in Corral Canyon in Malibu and the 4,369-acre Runkle Ranch near Simi Valley. Both properties are owned by entertainer Bob Hope.
In approving the district on a 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Maria VanderKolk absent, the commission emphasized that the existence of the district would not affect the outcome of the Ahmanson project.
"Without the transfer of land, nothing takes place," said Supervisor John K. Flynn, a LAFCO commissioner, before the vote.
With nine lawsuits filed against Ahmanson Ranch developers over environmental and traffic concerns, county officials said it could take three years before the construction begins and the service district is activated.
Opponents of the project questioned the financial viability of the community service district, saying they were unable to duplicate a consultant's projection of $4 million in annual revenues.
"We've been trying for more than a year to get the spreadsheets," said Mary Wiesbrock, the chairwoman of Save Open Space. "Without it, we have been unable to perform an independent analysis of the data."
They also suggested that service district officials would have the power to void agreements previously made by Ahmanson, such as an agreement to pay surrounding communities for traffic improvements.
"The county has had no guarantees this community service district won't neutralize" the agreements, said Rosemary Woodlock, an attorney representing the Save Open Space group and several homeowner associations.
Woodlock also questioned the county's motives for forming the district, suggesting the goal of cityhood was a way to sidestep the county's guidelines discouraging developments outside existing cities.
She compared the proposed Ahmanson project to Oak Park, another community service district in the east county that has not been solvent enough to consider incorporation.
"With this pretense of forming a city, the county justifies their determination that this is consistent with its guidelines for orderly and reasonable development," Woodlock said.
Flynn disputed the claim, saying the county "has been meticulous" in following its guidelines for orderly development.
"But sometimes the natural cycle of things requires that new cities be developed," Flynn said. "I think Oak Park and Ahmanson are two different developments. Oak Park was primarily residential, while the financial prospects for Ahmanson look pretty good."