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Ahmanson Study Called 'Adequate'

Review committee forwards new report on project's environmental effects to Ventura County planners over opponents' objections.

October 31, 2002|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Despite vehement protests, a Ventura County panel Wednesday approved a new environmental study of the planned 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch subdivision at the Los Angeles County line, and sent it to the county Planning Commission for a second stage of review.

The committee of county staff members unanimously approved the 4,000-page study, saying its exhaustive look at the proposed mini-city's effect on rare frog and flower species is complete.

"Under [state law], the level of analysis does not need to be perfect," said air quality specialist Chuck Thomas, a member of the Environmental Report Review Committee. "It must be adequate. And I think this EIR meets that standard."

But the committee told Ahmanson developer Washington Mutual Bank that it would have to shut down a water well on the ranch if testing shows it is connected to polluted ground water by a subterranean plume at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Simi Valley. The lab, where rockets were tested for decades, is two miles from the site of the proposed community.

The well in question, however, is only about 1,000 feet away from the project's nearest homes and would be used to irrigate an 18-hole golf course. Steve Westin, the developer's attorney, said the company would comply with the request.

In approving the study, the environmental committee discounted opponents' arguments that the review is flawed because it does not update a 10-year-old study on the project's effect on traffic.

The committee members also brushed aside critics' demands that they delay approval until a state water agency explores the potential health risk of the toxic chemical perchlorate detected in the ranch well.

"This is an example of irresponsible and reckless government, especially when it comes to public health and safety," opponent Tsilah Burman said after the vote.

Wednesday's public hearing was the sixth the county panel has held since the hotly contested report landed in its lap early this year.

Ventura County supervisors ordered the study after the California red-legged frog and the San Fernando spineflower were discovered on the rolling grasslands three years ago.

The $2-billion golf course community west of the San Fernando Valley was first approved by Ventura County in 1992. But years of litigation and the discovery of the two rare species have delayed construction.

The analysis found that the project would affect the frogs and flowers but that safeguards would reduce the problem to acceptable levels.

Opponents have assailed the report as insufficient on a number of fronts. Their criticism Wednesday focused primarily on the discovery of perchlorate in the one well.

Perchlorate, which has been linked to thyroid problems, was found last summer in a 550-foot-deep sample at 28 micrograms per liter, seven times higher than new state safety guidelines.

Though government officials have not yet pinpointed the source of the contamination, critics said it could have migrated in aquifers from the Santa Susana lab, the site of rocket and nuclear reactor testing after World War II.

Without clear information about the chemical's source, opponents pleaded with the panel to delay approval of the study.

"If there is a shadow of a doubt that there is a threat to human health, you must take every step possible to investigate this," said Susan Cashman, a West Hills resident.

Supporters of the housing project also turned out at Wednesday's hearing, although many of them did not speak. They sat in the audience wearing neon-green stickers that read, "Yes, Build It."

Attorney Westin said the vote was a long-awaited moment. "'It's another step in a long process. But it's an important one," he said.

If the report passes muster with the Planning Commission next month, it will move to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote.

Supporters would like to see that happen before January, when Ahmanson critic Linda Parks joins the board.

One other supervisor, Steve Bennett of Ventura, has already voiced concerns that the report is insufficient, especially since it does not include a new traffic study.

Project critics believe Supervisors John K. Flynn or Kathy Long are on the fence and could be persuaded to form the three-supervisor majority needed to reject the study.

If that were to happen, developer Washington Mutual would have to conduct another time-consuming environmental review--an economic hardship that opponents hope would derail the project for good.

Critics of the project had nearly given up on stopping the subdivision after about a dozen failed lawsuits. But the campaign got new life last year when Hollywood director Rob Reiner joined the fight.

Reiner helped form Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, a celebrity-studded opposition group, and has succeeded in urging politicians across the state to denounce the project.

Earlier this month, former Vice President Al Gore also weighed in, urging that the oak-studded land be saved as open space.

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