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Major Housing Project Clears Hurdle

Ventura County planners endorse environmental findings for Ahmanson mini-city, setting up showdown vote by supervisors.

November 23, 2002|Massie Ritsch | Times Staff Writer

The controversial Ahmanson Ranch housing project near Calabasas narrowly passed another key planning review Friday, setting the stage for a showdown vote before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors next month.

Ventura County planning commissioners voted 3 to 2 to endorse a new environmental study of the long-delayed project and allow construction to begin on homes, offices, a school and golf course.

County supervisors hold final authority on the $2-billion development, and could vote Dec. 10.

As developer Washington Mutual Bank cheered the planning panel's decision, critics of the proposed mini-city said the split vote was a weak endorsement, and that they are confident supervisors will find the environmental study inadequate.

Planning commissioners Bill Bartels, Daryl Reynolds and Chairman Michael Wesner endorsed the environmental impact report, which supplemented a 1992 study after discovery of an endangered frog and plant on the 2,800-acre property three years ago.

Washington Mutual has proposed building 3,050 homes on the rolling hills abutting Ventura County's border with Los Angeles County.

"The developers have a right to develop property that they own," and there are sufficient regulations to ensure they do so responsibly, Reynolds said.

"I believe that they will do the right thing," she added.

Dissenting after the two-day hearing, commissioners Leo Molitor and Selma Dressler said they needed more time to analyze the 4,000-page study and accompanying documents.

They expressed concern about the project's effect on traffic and the recent discovery of the toxic chemical perchlorate in a well near the project site.

"I really feel I'm being pushed and rushed to make a decision," said Molitor, adding that he felt overburdened by 56 pounds of paper addressing the development.

Dressler said she wanted even more information, adding, "And the time to get that information is now -- before we turn the shovel."

Critics of the Ahmanson project suspect perchlorate migrated into the ground water from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which is two miles from the proposed community. Rockets were tested for decades at the lab.

Washington Mutual has said if the contamination is significant, it will not tap that ground water to irrigate its golf course.

Ventura County's five supervisors are set to have their say on the study at the Dec. 10 board meeting.

Chad Griffin, spokesman for the Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch group, urged the board to schedule a series of nighttime hearings around the county before it votes.

Aside from allowing more residents to comment on the project, such hearings would most likely delay the supervisors' vote into next year and achieve a political goal of Washington Mutual's opponents.

In January, project supporter Frank Schillo will leave the board and opponent Linda Parks will arrive. If the supervisors vote as their planning appointees did Friday, the new majority would block the Ahmanson project.

Schillo's appointee on the Planning Commission, Reynolds, made the motion to approve the new environmental study and send it on.

Representatives of Seattle-based Washington Mutual praised the commissioners for their attention during the marathon public hearings. "They showed that they cared about what they were doing," bank spokesman Tim McGarry said.

After the vote, Griffin repeated opponents' hope that Washington Mutual will agree to sell or donate its property for parkland. The bank's acknowledgment that perchlorate is in the ground water will only make it harder for them to pursue the project, he said.

"Washington Mutual is not going to be able to sell a home on this property," Griffin said.

Commissioner Bartels said the Ahmanson Ranch development will provide housing in a region that desperately needs it.

"We are at break point in Southern California," he said.

The players on both sides need to end their bitter feud and "find a way to live together," he added.

Chairman Wesner indicated he has little hope for that. "This is not over," he said.

"It's going to continue to get slugged out."

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