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Ahmanson Opponents Head for Company Meeting in Seattle

Land: The group plans to tell investors outside Washington Mutual's shareholder session that the development will hurt the bank's image.


Forty opponents of the Ahmanson Ranch development will board a bus for Seattle this morning, to protest at developer Washington Mutual's annual shareholder meeting.

Actor-director Rob Reiner, who co-founded the opposition group Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, actress Alfre Woodard and environmental crusader Erin Brockovich will meet the bus and other protesters Tuesday outside the Paramount Theatre, where the Seattle bank's meeting will be held.

Actor Martin Sheen and politicians opposed to the project are scheduled to meet up with the tour bus at stops along the way.

In Seattle, project opponents won't chant or picket, but they will be outside the meeting, handing out brochures and talking to investors. They will argue that the upscale $2-billion town planned west of Calabasas and north of Malibu in eastern Ventura County could hurt the bank's image and, in turn, its bottom line--a contention the developer rejects.

The bus trip underscores how opponents' strategy has shifted in recent months, from pressuring elected officials to curb the 3,050-home development to now trying to scare the nation's largest savings and loan into dropping its foray into real estate development. Project opponents say the bank should sell the property as parkland.

"They have focused a lot of time and resources on corporate imaging and branding," said Mike Monasmith, a spokesman for Reiner's group.

"They have a great deal to lose if customers begin to have a negative image of them as a corporate entity that conducts itself without respect for the environment or the community's wishes," he said.

About 400 of the bank's 2,000 branches are in Southern California.

Washington Mutual spokesman Tim McGarry said the project is a national model for smart growth, placing a village center with shops, offices and a resort hotel within a 10-minute walk or bike ride from affordable and luxury homes. It also would offer on-site public transportation, two golf courses and nine miles of hiking trails.

"Washington Mutual is very proud of the ranch," McGarry said. "It puts homes where they're needed. It makes sense for Southern California and we're committed to bringing it about."

On their way up the coast, protesters will stop at bank branches in Thousand Oaks, Santa Barbara and Portland, telling customers willing to listen that the project will add to sprawl, gridlock and environmental damage in Southern California.

In response, Washington Mutual is making available at all bank branches an open letter explaining the company's position. Turning the land over to park agencies "would fly in the face of Southern California's worsening housing crisis," the letter says.

Project backers say they want to work with true conservationists to address their concerns, but charge that many of the opponents are simply NIMBYs or Los Angeles County officials frustrated that Ventura County would draw the project's tax dollars.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved Ahmanson Land Co.'s plans in 1992, after negotiations that set aside 10,000 acres as open space. The Ahmanson Land Co. became a Washington Mutual subsidiary when the Seattle-based company acquired Home Savings of America in 1998.

The project had already survived a number of lawsuits and, in 1999, it suffered another setback when scientists for the developer identified two rare species on the property, the San Fernando Valley spineflower and California red-legged frog.

The developer has proposed conservation plans for the species but still needs final approval for those. The discovery also required a supplemental environmental review by Ventura County officials. Supervisors will be asked to accept that review later this year, but at least one supervisor has indicated he wants to call for additional study.

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