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Ahmanson Opponents Get Boost

Gore, Kennedy intensify national spotlight on controversial Ventura County development.

October 16, 2002|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Former Vice President Al Gore and environmental leader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. personally lobbied a Ventura County supervisor this week over the proposed 3,500-home Ahmanson Ranch project -- an unusual intervention that demonstrates a growing level of national interest in the debate over preserving the rolling grasslands west of the San Fernando Valley.

Gore and Kennedy joined an opposition that already includes a host of Hollywood celebrities, underscoring the ability of movie director Rob Reiner to bring high-profile politicians and celebrities into the fight.

Reiner, a leading Democratic activist and fund-raiser, formed a group last year to champion the preservation of 2,800-acre Ahmanson Ranch, the largest remaining parcel of privately owned open space bordering the San Fernando Valley.

Washington Mutual, the nation's largest savings and loan, plans to build a $2-billion golf course community on the ranch of oak savanna and grassy plains.

"We were obviously thrilled that Al Gore was willing to weigh in on this project," said Chad Griffin, a Reiner spokesman. "I can only say that the other side has a team of lobbyists and lawyers who are being paid for their services and these national leaders have not been paid a dime."

But a Washington Mutual spokesman said the developer has no intention of backing away from the project.

"We see this as an excellent project that deserves to be approved," said spokesman Tim McGarry. "We believe that when all is said and done, it will be."

The Ahmanson Ranch project was approved by Ventura County supervisors in 1992. However, years of litigation by opponents and the discovery in 1999 of the endangered red-legged frog and white spineflower on the property have delayed construction.

Kennedy, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, entered the fray on Monday by calling John Flynn, chairman of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, urging him to block a procedural move aimed at speeding up the environmental review of the project.

The speed of the environmental review is crucial because of an impending change in the makeup of the Board of Supervisors. A critic of the project, Linda Parks of Thousand Oaks, will join the board in January. She will replace Supervisor Frank Schillo, who has voiced support for it.

Gore phoned Flynn on Tuesday morning as Flynn sat on the dais in the supervisors' hearing room, Flynn said.

"It was a shock to be receiving a call from him, actually," Flynn said of Gore's call, which he said was brief.

Flynn said both Gore and Kennedy asked him to follow the supervisors' normal review process for a project. He denied that either influenced his decision to pull the proposal to speed the project from the supervisors' agenda, effectively killing it.

"I had already made up my mind," Flynn said. "This is such a heated issue that we probably should not try to change the process."

Supervisor Judy Mikels had proposed that board members sit with Ventura County's Planning Commission to hear public comments in the environmental study. Mikels also requested that any comments made to the Planning Commission not be repeated at a second hearing before the Board of Supervisors.

Flynn pulled her aside during a meeting break early Tuesday, Mikels said, to ask her to withdraw her motion. She declined, but said she would not fight Flynn's withdrawal of the item.

"I was not a happy camper," said Mikels, who supports the project. "The opposition put so much pressure on, and they decided to go ugly instead of listening to reason."

Mary Beth Postman, assistant to Kennedy, confirmed that he called Flynn. She said the Natural Resources Defense Council has opposed the Ahmanson project for years.

Officials with the group's Santa Barbara chapter asked Kennedy to make the call and he complied, the Kennedy spokeswoman said.

Jano Cabrera, a Gore spokesman, said that Gore called Flynn to "help preserve pristine open space in California."

By making the call, Cabrera said Gore "joined not only the Sierra Club [and] the Natural Resources Defense Council, but also a large coalition which recognizes the value of this pristine area."

Cabrera said several people and organizations opposed to Ahmanson had been writing Gore about the issue for some time. Cabrera said Gore received a number of phone calls about Ahmanson on Tuesday, but he did not know specifically who had asked Gore to call Flynn.

Sources close to the anti-Ahmanson campaign said Reiner called Gore.

Reiner's group, Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, seized on the delay to raise new questions about whether the project should be built, pointing to detrimental effects to the environment and on local freeways already clogged with traffic.

In recent months, a growing number of high-profile politicians, many of them in Los Angeles County, have come out against the project.

That high-level opposition has raised the stakes for the five Ventura County supervisors, who will vote on the new environmental analysis.

If supervisors reject the study, it could force Washington Mutual to abandon the project, opponents say, or at least agree to sell the property, possibly to a conservation group.

*

Times staff writer Holly Wolcott contributed to this report.

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