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Ahmanson Looms Over Calabasas

Development: City Council candidates see the nearby building project as having a major effect on the town. Their ideas for dealing with it vary.


CALABASAS — The seven contenders for three City Council seats in the March 6 election agree that the environmental impact of the proposed Ahmanson Ranch development just beyond the city border in eastern Ventura County is perhaps the most important issue facing the city, but there's no agreement on how to proceed.

The owner of Ahmanson Ranch, Seattle-based Washington Mutual Inc., plans to develop nearly 3,000 acres of open land into 3,005 homes, with office and retail space. The project, which abuts the far western boundary of Los Angeles County, would dramatically increase traffic in Calabasas and the west San Fernando Valley and adversely affect the area's air and water quality, city officials say.

In 1992, when the project was approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, Calabasas entered the fray opposing it. Multiple lawsuits, three involving the city, stalled the project. But, with rulings in Washington Mutual's favor, the city has failed to quash it.

Now, as Washington Mutual has filed to begin the first phase of the project, the issue continues to be a major concern for the council, which still opposes it.

Two incumbents, James Bozajian, 35, and Lesley Devine, 58, are seeking reelection to the five-member council, whose members currently are paid $300 a month.

Bozajian, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, has served one four-year term on the council, including one year as mayor. The mayor is elected by majority vote of the council.

Devine, a free-lance environmental consultant, has served on the council since the city incorporated in 1991 and was mayor 1997-98.

The other five candidates in the at-large election filed to run after the January resignation of Robert Sibilia.

They include:

* Leslie Abraham-Wolf, 51, who left a career as a medical communications executive to run for the council.

* Karmen Brower, 58, a writer of historical fiction and former owner of a systems consulting firm.

* Marcus Allen Frishman, who declined to give his age, deputy board member for the State Board of Equalization.

* Michael Harrison, 49, a business and real estate planning attorney in private practice.

* Matthew Hooper, 23, vice president of Youth Radio Network, an Internet development company.

The candidates have a wide range of views on how to proceed with the Ahmanson Ranch project. Some favor working with Washington Mutual to mitigate environmental damage; others would like to lobby the company's shareholders to oppose the project; and still others want the property to be bought and preserved as open space.

Instead of filing more lawsuits, Frishman and Brower said they want the city to work with Washington Mutual to reduce harm to endangered species, such as the red-legged frog and the San Fernando Valley spineflower, and to the city's air and water quality.

Because the city has been unsuccessful in persuading Ventura County residents to join its efforts to halt the development, Brower said, "we have only the choice of mitigating the damage."

Devine and Harrison vow to battle Washington Mutual on its home turf, Seattle, and through its stockholders. "Seattle residents probably would not be keen on their local bank being a party to massive destruction," Harrison said.

Devine and Harrison said that by appealing to Washington Mutual shareholders, they would hope to create internal opposition and generate enough publicity to stop the project.

Bozajian and Hooper said they would push the council to find ways to buy the property and preserve it as open space.

Both suggested seeking government and private funds. Hooper proposed a community-based effort to raise money to buy the land.

Bozajian suggested offering Washington Mutual a tax incentive in return for deeding the property to the public as open space.

Previous such efforts, however, have been unsuccessful, Devine said.

Most candidates agreed that the 10-year-old city has been managed well, but Abraham-Wolf said she felt compelled to run by disappointment with city operations.

She is currently a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city. She said she filed suit in 1998 alleging that the city manager improperly ordered the removal of storage crates from her property after complaints from neighbors. Calabasas officials declined to comment because the matter is currently in litigation. The case is set for trial this summer.

Abraham-Wolf said she filed for candidacy because she "felt that people in power running the city didn't know what was going on."

She, Harrison and Hooper want the council to work more closely with the Las Virgenes Unified School District on a number of issues, including improved communications, city-district cooperation on before- and after-school programs, and better traffic mitigation in school zones.

Candidates Brower and Frishman, who said Calabasas has viewed business warily in the past, would like the council to be more receptive to the needs of businesses.

"If you have a business come here, you have to realize their growth potential. We do not need a council that infringes on the rights of businesses," Frishman said.

Brower said the city is having difficulty attracting and retaining businesses. "We have the reputation of being idiotic tree-huggers," he said.

Brower and Frishman recalled the story of a frustrated business owner who moved out of Calabasas after wrestling with the city over insufficient parking. "We need [the business community] as much as they need us," said Brower, referring to the financial resources businesses provide.

Incumbents Devine and Bozajian said the city does respect businesses, listing the Cheesecake Factory headquarters and the soon-to-be-completed Creekside Village retail center at Las Virgenes and Agoura roads as examples.

Harrison said he would want the council to work with "smart growth developers," those that minimize damage to the environment, to help the city build appropriately.

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