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Project Foes Turn to Water Bond

Critics of the Ahmanson development believe using Prop. 50 money to help buy and preserve the 2,800-acre ranch meets the law.

November 10, 2002|Massie Ritsch | Times Staff Writer

Tucked into a $3.4-billion clean water bond that California voters passed last week is money that opponents of the Ahmanson Ranch development are eyeing to buy the grazing land near Calabasas and preserve it.

Proposition 50 earmarks at least $300 million for protecting watersheds and wetlands in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and includes $40 million for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the state agency that acquires parkland in the area.

Supporters of the idea said that using the bond money to buy Ahmanson Ranch meets the law because the land drains into Malibu Creek, which flows through the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and into Santa Monica Bay.

Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), who was reelected Tuesday, said she will work to build support in Sacramento for putting Proposition 50 money toward buying the 2,800-acre ranch.

"What a wonderful legacy for the state if we could do this," Pavley said.

Opponents of the $2-billion, 3,050-home subdivision have been trying for months to persuade owner Washington Mutual to sell the land to the public or enjoy a sizable tax break by donating it to a conservation agency.

They say they could have pieced together an attractive bid even before Proposition 50's passage, but the bond puts them closer to their goal.

"We are asking [Washington Mutual] to come to the table and sell this at a fair price to the state of California so it can forever be preserved as parkland," said Chad Griffin, spokesman for the organization Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch.

The group encouraged its allies to support Proposition 50, which was formally titled the "Water Security, Clean Drinking Water, Coastal and Beach Protection Act of 2002."

The group's co-chairman, Chris Albrecht, an HBO executive, contributed $20,000 to back the ballot measure. It passed 55% to 45%.

Estimates of how much money it would take to buy the ranch range from $100 million to as much as $500 million.

Washington Mutual, a Seattle-based bank, has repeatedly insisted it wants to start building homes and that it isn't interested in selling its land.

"We are now focused completely on building a new community, the Ahmanson Ranch community, in an area where there is a strong imbalance of jobs over housing," spokesman Tim McGarry said.

Even some of those who have fought over the last decade to block the construction of homes on the rolling hills and oak savannas at Ahmanson say they think the new bond money may not be suited for purchase of the ranch.

"Prop. 50 was about water, and Ahmanson is not just about water," said state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who favors preserving the ranch. "It's about traffic and it's about land use and it's about air pollution" as well as water.

So a hodgepodge of funding sources, including the Proposition 40 parks and natural resources bond from March, might be more appropriate, she said. Whether the latest bond applies to Ahmanson Ranch is moot, Kuehl said, if Washington Mutual refuses to be a "willing seller," as the law requires.

Given the expected competition for Proposition 50 money among agencies and nonprofit groups, spending tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, on the Ahmanson parcel might not make sense, said Mike Spear, deputy secretary for land conservation and stewardship at California's Resources Agency.

"If you do Ahmanson, there's a whole bunch of stuff that's not going to get done elsewhere," Spear said. "We're very concerned about one project taking all of the funding for an area."

Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said he would like to participate in a state purchase of Ahmanson Ranch for parkland.

"I think we're eager for a solution to the problem," he said. "And we certainly would be in a position to try to help if we had a willing seller.

"But I've not received any communications from Washington Mutual's representatives. They know my e-mail. They know my home number."

But any expenditure of Proposition 50 money on Ahmanson, Edmiston said, would compete with such high-profile projects as the preservation of wetlands at both Playa Vista in Los Angeles and near Bolsa Chica State Beach in Orange County.

Ventura County planners are reviewing a new environmental study of the Ahmanson Ranch development and could forward the study to county supervisors for review next month.

Concerned that the 8,000-person community project will further clog area streets and freeways, Los Angeles city officials have threatened to sue their neighboring county if Ventura County supervisors allow the project to proceed.

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