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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Developer Loses Bid to Stop Foes From Using Ahmanson Name on Web Pages

February 07, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ahmanson Ranch developers were dealt another setback Tuesday when an international arbitration panel ruled that project critics can continue to operate Web sites using the Ahmanson name.

Company officials are now considering whether to file a lawsuit in federal court to take control of those domain names.

The two rulings by a panel with the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization are being hailed as a victory by members of Save Open Space and Friends of Ahmanson Ranch, which operate the Web sites.

"It's like a David-and-Goliath thing," said Save Open Space director Mary Wiesbrock. "WIPO stopped them from gagging us on getting out the true story of Ahmanson Ranch."

For months, slow-growth and environmental activists have posted their criticisms of the 3,050-home development planned in eastern Ventura County on Web sites at http://www.ahmanson.org, http://www.ahmansonranch.com and http://www.ahmanson-ranch.com. They obtained these domain names before the developer thought to secure them.

Officials with Washington Mutual Inc., the parent company of Ahmanson Land Co., argued that the critics were infringing on its trademark and that those addresses with Ahmanson in the name should be turned over to the developers.

The panel disagreed, finding that critics' uses of the name were fair because Ahmanson is a common name, not the property of the developers, and because the critics were noncommercial entities whose intention was to protect the public's interest.

"We respectfully disagree with the panel but will carefully examine their reasoning as we sift through our options and decide whether or not to pursue the matter further," said Washington Mutual spokesman Tim McGarry.

Regardless of who controls the Web sites, McGarry said, the company's focus is obtaining the final environmental approval and permits needed to break ground in 2002.

The development, a mix of houses, townhomes, apartments and a village center with shops and offices, was proposed in 1986 and approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in 1992. Its progress has been slowed, however, by concerns over the environment, traffic and the discovery of rare plants and frogs on the site.

Wiesbrock said she and other critics plan to keep the developer tied up with court challenges well past 2002. "There's no way they're going to break ground in a year," she said.

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