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Development Foe Holds Her Ground

Activism: The Agoura Hills woman who started the battle to block Ahmanson Ranch now has reinforcements, but stays on the front lines.


Before Rob Reiner, Martin Sheen or Erin Brockovich rallied against the Ahmanson Ranch project last fall, one small woman with a keen mind and a righteous anger declared the proposed mini-city a recipe for environmental disaster.

Today, actor-director Reiner carries the anti-Ahmanson mantle most prominently. Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn recently joined the campaign.

But it was Mary Wiesbrock, a college-educated stay-at-home mom, who started the fight against the 3,050-home project in the rugged Simi Hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

And the Agoura Hills activist helped keep it alive until a potent alliance of politicians, environmentalists and celebrities joined the fray.

Now, 10 years after approval of the golf course community by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, its future remains in doubt, despite pledges by ranch owner Washington Mutual Bank to break ground in 2003. Ventura County officials are weighing the adequacy of a new environmental study, and Hahn is threatening a lawsuit.

While the merits of the Ahmanson Ranch plan are still debated angrily, there is little dispute that the tireless Wiesbrock--a trained teacher, biologist and laboratory technologist--made a big difference in this arduous longshot campaign.

"I give Mary a lot of credit," said planning expert and author William Fulton, who has analyzed the Ahmanson deal. "She has repeatedly changed the terms of the debate. It's not built, because she kept opposing it until she got friends."

Ventura County planner Dennis Hawkins made the same point at a recent public hearing, giving backhanded praise to Wiesbrock for repeatedly pressing him to test an Ahmanson Ranch water well she thinks might be contaminated.

"As much as it pains me to agree with Mary Wiesbrock ... we're supporting additional examination to put this issue to bed," Hawkins said.

"I admire her tenacity," he added. "She's been there at every hearing for 13 years, always pushing her concerns. Sometimes we haven't agreed with her because of lack of evidence, but she's been there fighting the good fight."

But the fight has changed, according to Wiesbrock. "Ahmanson Ranch has become a regional, statewide and national issue," she said. "It's gone to a higher level."

The $2-billion development by the savings and loan has come to symbolize the push and pull between California's need to ease its housing crisis and a growing grass-roots movement to preserve the state's dwindling open space.

The seeds of the struggle were planted in 1989, when Wiesbrock helped pull together Save Open Space to protect the mountains that separate the sprawl of Los Angeles from the leafy commuter towns of eastern Ventura County.

That group of activist homeowners hoped to block not only the Ahmanson Ranch community, but a second huge country club project that comic Bob Hope planned for his Jordan Ranch two canyons away.

In 1975, Wiesbrock and her husband, Frederick, now a retired oil company manager, moved into a four-bedroom tract home in Agoura Hills, where they raised four children and sent them to college.

Their new house was an easy one-mile hike over a ridge to Hope's old cattle ranch. It was five miles, as the crow flies, from Ahmanson Ranch.

"We saw the worsening traffic and air quality," Wiesbrock recalled, "and after years of working in homeowners associations, I had come to realize we needed a regional group."

So Wiesbrock, 55, the daughter of a nuclear physicist who challenged the use of atomic weapons after retiring from the Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratory, took that same spirit to try to save the open space around her.

In Wiesbrock's own campaign, she recruited Maria VanderKolk of Thousand Oaks, a naive but articulate 25-year-old toy marketer, who in a stunning upset won a seat on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in 1990.

Within a year, VanderKolk and a staff headed by a leading Ventura County environmentalist had fashioned a deal they considered a unique opportunity to protect large swaths of open space forever.

With then-Gov. Pete Wilson's encouragement, they consolidated the Hope and Ahmanson projects onto one-half of Ahmanson Ranch.

By late 1992, however, both the Ventura County Planning Commission and the county planning staff had opposed the project, citing its severe environmental effects and its precedent-setting potential for development of other open space in Ventura County.

When the Board of Supervisors approved it anyway, an outraged Wiesbrock declared VanderKolk a traitor to the environmental cause. "This is a story of betrayal and greed," Wiesbrock said after the supervisors' 4-1 vote. Hope eventually got about $57 million for his land, nearly half from parks agencies and the rest from developers. The ranches are now part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Save Open Space lost four lawsuits trying to block construction, and surrounding cities and Los Angeles County lost numerous others.

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