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Ahmanson Ranch Mired in Political Tug of War

Growth: Development was once hailed by environmentalists but now struggles to overcome their scorn.

April 04, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In solemn presidential tones, actor Martin Sheen condemns a plan to build a small city overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

"Are you stuck in traffic right now?" the chief executive of television's "West Wing" declares in a stream of radio ads. "If not, you'd better enjoy this rare moment. Because it's only going to get worse, thanks to Washington Mutual Bank."

The radio spots represent the latest broadside against a 3,050-home golf course community planned for the rugged Simi Hills near Calabasas.

Once the darling of urban planners and even some environmentalists, Washington Mutual's Ahmanson Ranch project has been thrown on the defensive by a potent new alliance of politicians, environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities.

The $2-billion development by the nation's largest savings and loan places on a collision course two powerful imperatives of California politics--the push for clustered "smart growth" that puts homes close to jobs while easing a growing housing crisis, and the pull of a newly emboldened grass-roots movement to preserve large tracts of dwindling open space.

Dozens of large housing projects statewide--including the giant Newhall Ranch and Playa Vista developments in Los Angeles County--are caught between the same determined forces.

The battle is crystallized on 2,800 acres of oak savanna and grassy plains. Ahmanson Ranch is the largest remaining chunk of undeveloped private land in the mountains ringing the San Fernando Valley.

"Ahmanson Ranch stands at the intersection of 'smart growth' and environmental activism in California," said planning expert William Fulton.

"A generation ago this project would have been accepted as a good master-planned community," said Fulton, who describes the project's initial 1992 approval in his book, the "Reluctant Metropolis." "But today it's seen as a symbol of environmental destruction."

Ahmanson Ranch remains in limbo as Ventura County officials consider a new environmental study. This one focuses on a prickly, dime-sized white flower and a springy, red-legged frog, discovered on the ranch in 1999.

A consultant's analysis says both the plant and the amphibian can survive urbanization in preserves planned by developers. Whatever the Ventura County Board of Supervisors decides later this year, a new round of lawsuits is likely.

The lack of closure underscores a question that increasingly confounds California decision-makers: How do they accommodate the state's constant growth and save the environment at the same time?

Pasadena architect Donald Brackenbush thought he had the answer when he designed the Ahmanson project in 1985.

The ranch plan would be a throwback to the balanced communities that were America's small towns. Brackenbush argued that the community would be a logical extension of suburban Los Angeles.

Even in Ventura County, a national leader in open space preservation, the plan had support from some leading environmentalists. It was finally approved in 1992, primarily because the deal helped save 10,000 acres of nearby mountain land.

The Ahmanson Ranch "new town" won national awards for a design that stressed environmental sensitivity. It set aside 22% of homes for those with low or moderate incomes. And every resident would live within a 10-minute walk or bike ride of the village green and town center.

Developers faced multiple challenges, but they prevailed in a series of lawsuits that claimed the project skirted state planning and environmental laws.

By late 1998, after turning over the last of the promised parkland, project backers were ready to set a date for ground-breaking. But the golden shovels were stowed away after the discovery of a fragile flower, not seen since 1929, and a frog that has frequently fallen victim to human encroachment.

Critics seized the momentum.

What began as a guerrilla movement headed by homeowners in the upscale neighborhoods around Ahmanson Ranch, has now grown to include a legion of hostile politicians and Hollywood celebrities, led by actor-director Rob Reiner and aided by Sheen.

They contend the project is an environmental disaster that would dump 45,000 cars a day onto local streets and the Ventura Freeway, pollute mountain creeks and distant Malibu beaches, uproot nearly 1,200 oak trees and kill the rare San Fernando Valley spineflower and California red-legged frog.

The discovery of 1.6 million of the tiny flowers on a grassy hillside and 25 of the rare frogs, in deep pools near a planned golf course, particularly reinvigorated the opposition.

Developers pledged to preserve, and expand, the frog and spineflower populations. But critics used the new ecological issues to rally even more supporters for open space.

The recent passage of two state bond measures to enhance parks and open space only increased Ahmanson opponents' sense that they are seizing the advantage. Some of the $4.7 million in bonds approved by voters in 2000 and last month could help buy and preserve the property.

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