Despite swift rejection of the idea by Ventura County leaders, the Ahmanson Land Co. has formally asked county planners to scrap a requirement that the developer dedicate certain land as open space.
Ahmanson's application asks county officials for permission to amend portions of the development agreement and Specific Plan for the mini-city planned along the Los Angeles County border in eastern Ventura County.
Specifically, Ahmanson would like to eliminate provisions that require the company to acquire more than 4,708 acres of land at Runkle Ranch and Corral Canyon--the linchpin to the original deal backed by Gov. Pete Wilson five years ago.
In lieu of the land, Ahmanson proposes establishing a fund in an amount equivalent to the value of the properties--estimated at about $30 million--to be used by the county for future open space acquisitions.
Although a similar proposal was made by county Supervisor Frank Schillo last month, he and the other supervisors have indicated that Ahmanson's latest proposal will find little support.
Meanwhile, Ahmanson officials said their Dec. 17 application does not mean that they have abandoned their original agreement with the county.
"Acquiring the land is still our primary goal," said Mary Trigg, spokeswoman for Ahmanson Land's parent company, Home Savings of America. "But we want to have an alternative and set the stage for something new in the event that is needed."
Representatives from Ahmanson have been negotiating for more than five years with entertainer Bob Hope, who owns the properties at Runkle Ranch and Corral Canyon, for title to the land.
Those negotiations are continuing, Trigg said, and this newest chapter in the Ahmanson saga shouldn't be interpreted as a sign that the massive billion-dollar housing project is near collapse.
Under its agreement with the county, Ahmanson Land must acquire more than 9,900 acres of undeveloped land on the Jordan and Runkle ranches, in Liberty Canyon, Corral Canyon and on a portion of the Ahmanson Ranch property itself and dedicate it to park agencies before it can pull grading permits and begin construction.
Two of the properties, the 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch near Oak Park and 300 acres in Liberty Canyon near Calabasas, have already been purchased by park agencies for $26.7 million.
In addition to the tracts of homes Ahmanson would build, the project would include a sprawling retail complex, two championship golf courses and a 300-room hotel.
The project has been the focus of widespread criticism from numerous detractors who claim that if it is built, it will do irreparable harm to the local flora and fauna and will overwhelm communities in Los Angeles County with traffic.
After reviewing Ahmanson's request, Ventura County planners returned the application and asked the company to provide more details on the specifics of proposed amendments and the open space fund.
"The application was very vague and we want to know more about what they're proposing," said county Planner Dennis Hawkins, who has worked extensively with the project.
Ahmanson's proposal, if approved by the county Board of Supervisors, would open up the entire project to possible lawsuits by such groups as Save Open Space and the city of Calabasas, both of which have filed suits against the project in the past.
"Did this come as a surprise to us? No," said Vince Curtis of Save Open Space. "We always thought they would try to wiggle out of this agreement. . . . It's like they factored all this in at the beginning."
Unlike the group's two past suits, which failed to put the brakes on the project, Curtis said that if his group were to file another suit, the new information and nature of Ahmanson's request have given Save Open Space a much stronger legal position.
A 1992 suit by Save Open Space attempted to end the Ahmanson project because of its serious impact on the environment. The courts ruled against the group, reasoning that the almost 10,000 acres of open space dedications would offset the project's environmental impact.
"That's why they won and if that's eliminated, then I don't see how the courts could allow them to proceed," Curtis said.
He added that new information about possible soil contamination of parts of the Ahmanson property and surrounding areas from Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Lab could make a very strong case against the Ahmanson Ranch development in any future lawsuit.
While maintaining their support for efforts that reduce the size of the massive project, Calabasas city officials said it was far too early to say whether the city would seek legal action against Ahmanson Land's latest proposal.
"It's in the city's interest to see a smaller, more responsible project, but we're miles away from filing a lawsuit and I'm not even sure the city would pursue that," Calabasas City Planner Steve Craig said.