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Ventura County

Crowd Jams Ahmanson Hearing

Public comment will continue today, after which Ventura County planning commissioners will vote.

November 22, 2002|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

A new study of the controversial Ahmanson Ranch mini-city near Calabasas moved toward a key vote Thursday as dozens of speakers told Ventura County planning commissioners that the subdivision is either an environmental disaster or relief to Southern California's housing crunch.

A hearing chamber was so packed with people wanting to speak that officials set up an overflow room nearby, equipped with a TV monitor carrying the testimony live.

Commissioners listened to more than eight hours of testimony before cutting off debate. The hearing will continue today at 8:30 a.m. at the Hall of Administration in Ventura.

After all public comments, the commission will vote to approve or deny the 3,050-home golf course project. Its recommendation will go to the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to hear the issue in mid-December.

Thursday's hearing was the second stage of review for an environmental study ordered by supervisors in December 2000 after Ahmanson Ranch biologists found the endangered San Fernando Valley spineflower and California red-legged frog on project lands.

The 4,000-page document concludes that the two species can be adequately protected with safeguards agreed to by developer Washington Mutual Bank. A Ventura County committee made up of technical staff gave its approval to the study last month.

While opponents have faithfully turned up at each hearing to protest the project, its supporters have been less visible. That changed Thursday, when dozens of pro-Ahmanson advocates showed up.

They listened attentively as Guy Gniadek, president of Ahmanson Land Co., unveiled a 10-minute video outlining measures his company has taken to protect the dime-sized spineflower and the red-legged frog.

Wearing bright green "Yes -- Build It!" stickers, supporters urged commissioners to allow the project to go forward, saying that housing is badly needed.

Bernice Kalemkarian of Simi Valley said she often sees Palmdale advertised as an affordable place to live. But the 80-year-old grandmother said she wants her family close by.

"Why should we grandparents, who raised our children in Ventura County, have to drive more than 100 miles to see our grandchildren?"

Others said Ahmanson Ranch has been unfairly criticized when it should be applauded as a model for how to build neighborhoods in a responsible and environmentally sensitive way.

The developer has already turned over 10,000 acres for open space, planted 2,000 oaks and has won several awards for drawing up an energy-efficient subdivision.

"The Ahmanson people should be praised for being responsible corporate citizens," said Jerry Miller, a Thousand Oaks resident and president emeritus of Cal Lutheran University.

Don Facciano, president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., noted that the project was approved by supervisors in 1992 and that if the county attempts to stop it now, it will be sued for millions of dollars by the developer.

He called opponents "so-called activists" and "Hollywood celebrity cheerleaders" who have tried repeatedly to halt the project in the courts.

"They couldn't get their way in the court and they want the supervisors to come up with a phony environmental pretext" to evade the development deal, he said.

Maribel De La Torre, a member of the San Fernando City Council, read a letter signed by 25 other Los Angeles County politicians stating their support. The mayors and council members of several small cities, including Lynwood, Norwalk and Alhambra, cited the region's worsening housing shortage and spiraling home prices as reasons to allow the project to go forward.

Opponents were just as vocal.

As they have in past hearings, they cited a variety of problems with the proposed subdivision and the environmental study of it.

Many said they are concerned about increased traffic and air pollution.

Westlake Village physician Ron de la Pena noted that Ventura County's air quality already is among the worst in the nation and predicted that respiratory illnesses would go up.

"Voting for this project is a death sentence for unsuspecting residents," De la Pena said. "It's unconscionable to approve this ... just so that a few houses, shops and golf courses can be built."

Others said they are worried that ancient Chumash caves could be disturbed, or even destroyed, if the subdivision goes up nearby.

Alul-Koy Lotah, who said she grew up in Ventura and roamed the sage-covered hills at the ranch as a girl, asked commissioners to consider the possible harm.

"[The opposition] went silent, so I went silent. I thought it had gone away," said Lotah, who now lives in Bradley, near Monterey. "But now I'm thinking about the frogs and flowers and about my sacred home."

Perhaps most significant were the comments of Dennis Dickerson, executive officer of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles. Dickerson told commissioners that his board has "serious reservations" about discharge of sediments from the project into downstream Malibu Creek during the rainy season.

The board is also concerned about the recent discovery of the toxin perchlorate in a well near the Ahmanson Ranch project site, he said. More study is needed to find out if the contaminant is present in ground water underlying the project, Dickerson told commissioners.

His comments could signal more roadblocks for the project, even if approved by the Board of Supervisors, because the state water board must also approve some permits before construction.

Ahmanson Ranch has been planned since 1986. Opponents mounted a campaign to defeat it 10 years ago, when it first came before the Board of Supervisors, but were unsuccessful.

Years of litigation, and the 1999 discovery of the threatened frog and flower, delayed the project.

Opponents' campaign got new life last year when Hollywood director Rob Reiner and a host of other celebrities joined the battle, bringing money and star power.

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