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Limit on Project Proposed

Ahmanson Ranch: State water board recommends a ban on dirt grading during the rainy season, potentially a costly requirement.

June 24, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

State water quality officials have issued a recommendation that would prohibit the developer of the Ahmanson Ranch housing project from grading dirt at the site during the rainy season.

If approved, the recommendation by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board would ban grading from Oct. 1 through April 15--a requirement that some experts anticipate could increase construction costs by millions.

Washington Mutual Bank wants to build a 3,050-home subdivision on the eastern edge of Ventura County north of Calabasas. Project foes want the company to abandon the plan and sell the acreage for parkland.

"This decision provides just one more reason why Washington Mutual should not go forward. There are already issues about traffic, air and water quality, and now financial viability," said Tsilah Burman, executive director of Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch.

Citing real estate industry experts, Burman said that a ban on earth-moving for six months each year could hike development costs by one-third or more. "This will severely impact their bottom line," she added.

Although exact dollar figures were unavailable, Burman said the developer plans to move 45 million cubic yards of dirt at the site over the course of 10 years. The cost of operating one dirt-moving machine can top $100 an hour, she said.

In response to the water board's recommendation last week, a spokesman for the developer said the project has weathered a decade of hurdles--including litigation and the discoveries of a rare flower and an endangered frog--and would also survive this.

"We will certainly address any challenge related to erosion and sedimentation in cooperation with the regional board and other agencies, and we are very confident we will be able to do this successfully," said Tim McGarry of Washington Mutual.

McGarry said company officials will review the water board's recommendation before deciding on the next course of action. He described comments about increased construction costs as "silly."

"It is highly speculative for people who are not involved in the project" to offer projected cost increases, McGarry said.

According to the recommendation, state water officials believe rain at the project site would turn piles of graded dirt into mud, which could slide down hillsides and damage two nearby creeks with excessive silt.

The recommendation was submitted to Ventura County planning officials, who are preparing a supplemental environmental report on the project and will decide whether to include it in their findings.

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