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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

Drop the Name Game

February 11, 2001

Now that an international arbitration panel has ruled against them, the developers of Ahmanson Ranch should drop plans to take an anti-development group to court over the use of the Ahmanson name for its Web sites. It was a bad idea before the ruling and it's a worse one now.

Washington Mutual Inc., the parent company of Ahmanson Land Co., insists that it was only trying to protect its "brand name," not silence opposition, in challenging Save Open Space's use of www.ahmanson.org, www.ahmansonranch.com and www.ahmanson-ranch.com.

But for the developers to lay claim to a name as common as Ahmanson was a stretch. A Web search for the name turned up 10,400 hits, including some Swiss sites, which couldn't have helped the developers' cause. The Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization ruled that the critics' uses of Ahmanson were fair because such a common name is not the property of the developers.

Washington Mutual says it is deciding whether to pursue the matter further, never mind the chilling effect even the threat of litigation can have on public debate.

Not that this has been much of a debate. Opponents to the Ahmanson Ranch development describe Washington Mutual as a "big bully" and as "'America's environmental enemy." Their anti-development rhetoric is part of a distressing trend, in the San Fernando Valley and across the country, for the opposing sides in a dispute not just to disagree but to demonize the other.

It's not enough to be concerned about traffic or to object to leveling oak trees or to protest losing open space. It's not enough to simply oppose a developer and fight a development. The developer has to be an enemy; the development, evil.

This particular development does not deserve that characterization. It would provide housing in a range of sizes and for a range of incomes, clustered around a village center and close to large employers in Warner Center and along the 101 Freeway corridor. It not only includes parks in the plans but its approval depended on a series of land transfers that added nearly 10,000 acres to regional parklands.

Opponents have the right, of course, to say what they want about the development and to use the Web to do so. As frustrating as that may be, for Washington Mutual to do anything to hinder their free speech only plays into stereotypes. The critics will call Washington Mutual a big bully regardless, but it shouldn't act the part.

Washington Mutual did the right thing in taking its complaint to arbitration rather than going immediately to court. Now it should do the right thing and accept the panel's ruling.

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