One side billed it as a town hall meeting to debate issues. The other side shunned it as a publicity stunt.
And so a leather desk chair set aside for Kerry Killinger, chief executive of Washington Mutual Bank, sat empty on a platform Saturday as 250 people listened to about a dozen celebrities and politicians denounce the proposal for the Ahmanson Ranch mini-city. The project near the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties is being developed by Washington Mutual.
With virtually every person in the room cheering loudly in opposition to the project, the assembled personalities seemed to be preaching to the converted.
"It was clearly one-sided," acknowledged Chad Griffin, spokesman for Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, sponsor of the event at Taft High School in Woodland Hills and a major opponent of the 3,050-home development. "I think there was probably only one person there from the other side."
He said he hoped that the speeches in pep rally style by actor Dylan McDermott, producer Rob Reiner, political commentator Arianna Huffington, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and others would spur those who attended to "be more active" in writing letters, lobbying neighbors and canceling loans or accounts with Washington Mutual.
Washington Mutual representatives, who declined to answer the group's written requests for a debate, stayed away from the meeting and characterized it as a Hollywood-driven stunt.
"It's part of Rob Reiner's PR strategy," said a bank spokesman, Tim McGarry, referring to Reiner's co-chairmanship of the Rally to Save group. "We think it's really a rally against new housing."
The word "housing," however, barely came up. Speeches focused on traffic to be generated by an estimated 10,000 residents who would move in just north of Calabasas in Ventura County.
Reiner scoffed at a recent proposal by Ventura County Supervisor Frank Schillo to require a $30-million traffic mitigation fee from Washington Mutual. Caltrans "will have to build an extra lane on the 101 in each direction" to handle the load, he said, and "everyone knows that will cost $200 million to $300 million."
Hahn joined others in predicting added air pollution, degraded water quality and fouling of Surfrider Beach with sewage and other harmful substances. "Washington Mutual, listen to the people. They don't want this project," he said.
Huffington accused the developer of "one of the worst examples of corporate abuse" in its pursuit of development in spite of effects on neighboring communities.
Washington Mutual has said it hopes to break ground in late 2003.
McDermott, who appears in the television show "The Practice," told the audience that he recently learned about the project from his wife. "Washington Mutual is all about money, and they're just trying to make more money," he said.
Other speeches criticizing the development proposal came from former Monkees band member Micky Dolenz, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine and actress Amy Smart.
McGarry said a 1992 environmental impact report "fully studied the traffic consequences of Ahmanson Ranch and disclosed what they would be."
Opponents want a new study, but Ventura County and Caltrans officials back Washington Mutual's contention that the study was accurate, he said.
"The problems of the 101 highway are problems of regional growth and require a regional solution," McGarry said.
"To my knowledge, no project in Southern California has ever been required to mitigate traffic on major highways," he said.