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L.A. Leaders Debate Ahmanson Project

April 11, 2002|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking its show on the road to the heart of secession country, the Los Angeles City Council met Wednesday in a Canoga Park theater to debate one of the hot-button issues in the San Fernando Valley: Ahmanson Ranch.

The council was weighing its response to Ventura County's latest environmental analysis of Ahmanson Ranch, a 2,800-acre suburb planned for the hills north of Calabasas.

An overflow crowd packed the Madrid Theatre and spilled onto the sidewalk during the debate. Some wore anti-Ahmanson T-shirts, while others wore "Build It" stickers on their shirts.

"Obviously, there is not an apathetic feeling here in the San Fernando Valley, as some people think," said Councilman Dennis Zine, smiling at the huge crowd.

Ventura County and Los Angeles officials are sparring over the development that would bring 3,050 homes, 400,000 square feet of commercial and office space, golf courses and a resort hotel to the eastern edge of Ventura County, overlooking the west San Fernando Valley.

The $2-billion development by Washington Mutual, the nation's largest savings and loan, also has sparked an extraordinary counter-campaign by Hollywood celebrities such as Rob Reiner and Martin Sheen.

Opposition to the project is intense on the Los Angeles side of the county line, chiefly because Ahmanson Ranch would funnel its traffic onto the streets of the west San Fernando Valley. The area already is one of the city's fastest-growing spots, with population in the 3rd Council District jumping 11.4% in the last decade, according to census figures.

Ventura County approved the project, which has yet to break ground, 10 years ago. The county commissioned a supplemental environmental impact report after two rare species were found at the site.

The bulk of the new report dealt with the San Fernando Valley spineflower and red-legged frogs discovered three years ago at Ahmanson Ranch. Building the development would destroy almost 7% of the flowers and could imperil some of the frogs or their habitat, the study found.

But it was what the report didn't say that vexed many Los Angeles residents. It did not reconsider the effects of increased traffic flowing from Ahmanson Ranch--estimated at more than 36,000 car trips a day.

Ventura County planners decided that there was no need to update 1992 traffic projections, because the original environmental impact report already had considered the congestion that increased traffic would bring to the Ventura Freeway.

But Caltrans has sent mixed signals about whether a fresh traffic analysis is necessary, said Dennis Hawkins, the Ventura County planner overseeing the Ahmanson proposal. Twice the state agency has asked the county to conduct a new traffic study, only to withdraw the request after meeting with county staff, Hawkins said. Now Caltrans wants Ventura County to impose a $5.4-million mitigation fee to offset effects to the Ventura Freeway, he said. The developer has agreed to pay a $1.6-million freeway mitigation fee.

The Los Angeles City Council voted last fall to keep a stretch of Victory Boulevard closed, even though it's a major access point to the ranch and the developer claims legal rights to the street.

"I am adamantly, completely and without reservation opposed" to the project, said Councilman Zine, who was elected last year after vowing to do "whatever it takes" to stop Ahmanson.

"I tell the people who are supporting it to drive the Ventura Freeway seven days a week like I do and sit in gridlock for an hour," Zine said. "It is the most frustrating thing. If I had hair, I'd pull it out."

Zine, who represents the West Valley, has asked the city attorney and various city agencies to review the environmental report.

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