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Activist Finds Cause in Ahmanson Housing Battle


Talk of vision and purpose had sidetracked Mary Wiesbrock, and she coasted to a nearly complete stop.

The leader of the grass-roots effort to block development of Ahmanson Ranch spoke of heeding a divine call and of thinking globally, acting locally.

"This is the last and largest privately held tract of open land in the Santa Monica Mountains . . . and once it's gone, it's gone forever," said Wiesbrock during a recent driving tour around part of the sprawling 2,800-acre ranch in the southeastern corner of Ventura County.

Then, in a flash, she and her car--plastered with bumper stickers against the development--jumped back into gear. Dispensing with niceties, Wiesbrock was once again in battle mode, the posture she has made her calling card during her near decade-long crusade to kill the mini-city proposed for the site.

"This is really about the politicians breaking the law to help the developers," Wiesbrock said as she breezed down an access road cut through the rolling hills of the former sheep ranch.

In her role as director of the local land conservation group Save Open Space, Wiesbrock, 54, has waged a campaign against the planned 3,050-home development on a number of fronts, from lawsuits to the pillorying of developer Washington Mutual Inc., and any public official or agency who is deemed to side with the project.

But even Wiesbrock's current and former opponents never question her motivation or sincerity in fighting the development, one of the largest in the county's history. They know this rail-thin dynamo means it when she says she is determined to stop Washington Mutual from ever bulldozing the property.

"There is a need for people like Mary," said Maria VanderKolk, the former county supervisor who Wiesbrock called a traitor after VanderKolk voted to approve the project in 1992 as part of a complicated land swap that put 10,000 acres of open space into public hands. "She's an extremist in the best sense. She won't compromise."

Now an assistant city manager in Arvado, Colo., VanderKolk said she and Wiesbrock have not spoken since she left the county after deciding against a second term on the board. Wiesbrock, an Agoura Hills resident, recruited VanderKolk as an environmental candidate in 1990, but then vowed to campaign against her if she ran again.


Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a Malibu-based state agency, declined to criticize Wiesbrock despite having to fend off a lawsuit that Save Open Space filed after Edmiston eased the way for transfer of the 10,000 acres. The National Park Service paid more than $16 million to obtain some of the properties.

"She sincerely believes in the rectitude of her cause," said Edmiston, adding that absent the parkland-for-development deal, "we would be out screaming as loud as Mary."

Since the Board of Supervisors signed off on the proposal in 1992, Save Open Space has filed four lawsuits, mainly contesting the legitimacy of the project's approval. Two were decided in favor of Ahmanson, while a third remains on appeal in Ventura County. The fourth--against the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy--is pending before the Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.

The subdivision, which would add 10,000 residents to the area, also calls for two golf courses, 400,000 square feet of commercial and office space, as well as parks, trails and open space. It would require extensive grading and the removal of about 1,000 ancient oak trees.

In February, Wiesbrock and Save Open Space launched a series of radio ads that labeled Washington Mutual "America's environmental enemy" and called on its customers to close accounts in protest.

Washington Mutual spokesman Tim McGarry said the ads, which aired on KNX-AM (1070), have had little effect on the financial institution's bottom line.

"There has just been no resonance beyond the Calabasas grade," he said.

McGarry said the ads suggested Save Open Space was resorting to acts of desperation after losing so many rounds in the courts.

"They've been trying [land-use] planning by lawsuit," McGarry said. "But we believe we're getting close to the finish line of what has been a long, arduous process."

Washington Mutual, which inherited the project when it acquired Home Savings of America two years ago, has recently gone on the offensive itself, taking legal action against Save Open Space over the domain name used by the nonprofit group's Web site: The case is set for arbitration later this month. The developer also has threatened to sue in federal court.


Over the years, Wiesbrock, who works part time as a lab technician at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, has found herself on the defensive in other respects as well. Some call her a radical and an interloper in Ventura County affairs.

The mother of four denies the political accusation. Indeed, Wiesbrock refuses to identify which party's candidates she usually supports.

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