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Ahmanson Seeks More Time for Land Deal : Simi Hills: The developer needs to acquire two more parcels for public open space before it can start building the mini-city.

August 27, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ahmanson Land Co., required to donate 10,000 acres for public parkland before starting construction on a mini-city in the Simi Hills, will ask the county for three more years to complete the open-space acquisition.

When county supervisors approved the massive Ahmanson Ranch project nearly two years ago, they said the developer could begin building the golf-course community only after deeding four mountain properties to the public.

And they set a deadline of December, 1995, for Ahmanson to convert the privately owned parcels into public open space.

So far, two of the properties--Jordan Ranch and Liberty Canyon--have entered the public domain, their rugged trails and magnificent vistas open to visitors. But Ahmanson has not yet purchased two other parcels: Runkle Ranch and Corral Canyon, which sweep across 4,700 acres in the Santa Susana Mountains and Malibu bluffs.

Rather than negotiating for Runkle and Corral--both owned by entertainer Bob Hope--Ahmanson executives have spent the last two years in court, responding to nine lawsuits filed against the project.

One phase of the litigation was resolved this spring, when a Superior Court judge ruled that the county acted properly in approving the $1-billion project. But opponents have appealed, arguing that plopping 8,600 residents on a former sheep ranch would snarl traffic, foul the air, trample wildlife habitat and strain public services.

Meanwhile, Calabasas officials announced Friday that they will appeal a separate ruling in favor of Ahmanson. The city is trying to block the developer from widening Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Los Angeles County.

Until the lawsuits are resolved, Ahmanson officials cannot be sure they will end up with a green light to build their upscale city. So they are reluctant to spend millions of dollars to purchase Runkle Ranch and Corral Canyon for open space, spokeswoman Mary Trigg said.

"We want to take this one step at a time," Trigg said. "We've been concentrating all of our efforts on resolving the litigation."

With the court battles expected to continue for at least a year, Supervisor Maria VanderKolk said she considered the Ahmanson request reasonable. Granting the extension, she said, "is the fair and equitable thing to do."

But critics of the Ahmanson Ranch project argued that the supervisors should stick to the original deadline.

"These people knew full well they were going to be sued by everyone in sight," said Rosemary Woodlock, an attorney fighting the development. "If they didn't write into their contract (a clause granting them) an extension in the case of litigation, then they have no business building cities."

Woodlock also objected to the timing of Ahmanson's request. Even without an extension, the company has 16 months to complete the land transactions. Rather than petition for relief now, she said, Ahmanson officials should work to wrap up the litigation and get on with the property acquisition.

But by requesting a hearing this fall, Ahmanson executives ensure that the current Board of Supervisors will vote on the matter.

Two supervisors who support the project, VanderKolk and Vicky Howard, will retire from the board after November's election. And one contender for VanderKolk's seat, attorney Trudi Loh, said she would oppose an extension.

"We need to take a hard-headed look at this: We cut a contract . . . and now they're asking for the ground rules to be changed," Loh said. "This doesn't seem anything close to reasonable."

Loh's opponent in the supervisorial race, Thousand Oaks Councilman Frank Schillo, said he would be inclined to grant an extension because the developer cannot control courtroom delays.

"If it was their fault, a problem they had created, I would give a different answer," he said. "But if they're held up by lawsuits, it's only fair to give them an opportunity to extend the deadline."

The two contenders for Howard's seat, Simi Valley Councilwoman Judy Mikels and Moorpark Councilman Scott Montgomery, both said they would support the extension request.

The Ventura County Planning Commission is expected to vote on the Ahmanson request Sept. 15, and the Board of Supervisors will take up the debate in mid-October.

Correspondent Frank Manning contributed to this report.

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