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Ventura County

New Studies Sought on Ahmanson

Development: The attorney general threatens to block the mini-city. But a company spokesman says building will start next year.

September 27, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has weighed in against the controversial Ahmanson Ranch housing project at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley, calling for a full new environmental study, threatening to block the development unless he is certain it abides by state law and supporting the sale of the ranch to a public agency.

Lockyer, whose office has intervened to halt projects for environmental reasons statewide, said in an interview that old Ahmanson Ranch studies are so dated that new ones are needed to judge the effects of the 3,050-home mini-city on roads, wildlife and the surrounding natural environment.

Another broad study could take years and further delay the $2-billion project approved by Ventura County in 1992, but stalled by legal challenges and environmental issues. A supplemental study on survival of a rare frog and flower is underway, but Lockyer said it does not go far enough.

"There's been considerable growth in the area since the previous studies were conducted," Lockyer said. "I think it's essential that we do an updated analysis of traffic and land use." If Lockyer is not satisfied that the new limited study meets legal requirements, "we're prepared to join litigation" to stop the project.

Lockyer, whose office represents three state agencies studying the Ahmanson Ranch plan, said that instead of construction, he favors preservation of the 2,800-acre ranch of grazing land and oak savannas through purchase by a public agency such as the state's Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

"It's a wonderful spot for preserving open space and for recreation and its trails system," he said. "So it would be nice if we could add to the conservancy most, if not all, of this property."

Tim McGarry, a spokesman for Ahmanson Ranch owner Washington Mutual Bank, said it's unfortunate that Lockyer took his stand before he had read the updated supplemental report released this week by a Ventura County consultant.

The consultant found that a new traffic study was not necessary and that the project could go forward without substantial environmental harm if developers do more to protect a threatened red-legged frog and an endangered spineflower discovered at the ranch in 1999.

McGarry said builders still plan to break ground on Ahmanson Ranch next year once Ventura County approves the supplemental study.

"We think it will become evident to the attorney general's people, once they review the document, that Ahmanson Ranch is in full compliance with the [law]," McGarry said. "The supplemental report

"California's political leadership," he added, "needs to take the state housing crisis seriously."

Lockyer first stated his views on Ahmanson in a questionnaire sent by project opponents to local and statewide candidates in the November election. Lockyer is running for reelection against state Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine). Ackerman said in an interview Thursday that he was not familiar with the Ahmanson project and hadn't taken a position.

Poised on a parched plateau and the sides of a canyon, the proposed Ahmanson project includes not only thousands of homes, but schools, parks, a town center, two golf courses and a resort hotel. It lies just across the Ventura County line from Woodland Hills and Calabasas, and is intended to feed workers into the huge Warner Center office complex a few miles away.

Most Los Angeles politicians and many Valley residents oppose it. Los Angeles County critics say they would suffer the project's negative effects--crowded roads, polluted air and water--while Ventura County would receive its tax benefits. Developers argue that the project is a model of modern "smart-growth" planning that puts jobs and homes close together while addressing a regional housing shortage.

Lockyer's statements reflect an increasingly vocal opposition to the project. In the last year, actor-director Rob Reiner has led a potent new alliance of politicians, environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities determined to kill it.

Last month, Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), a principal supporter, withdrew his endorsement after concluding that traffic projections included in a 1992 study are no longer reliable. Richman said the study underestimated traffic growth on key roads--such as the Ventura Freeway and Victory Boulevard--by up to 38%.

Lockyer also cited traffic as a chief concern and called for a new study, which alone could take more than a year.

"Traffic has been one of the most significant issues, and it's a substantial factor that has changed over the last decade," Lockyer said.

McGarry said nearly all of the freeway traffic growth was anticipated, and that Ahmanson trips would be only a small part of the increasing congestion.

Ahmanson's projected 37,500 vehicle trips on all Valley freeways and roads would be about half of the 72,000 daily trips created by 84 new projects built along a nearby stretch of the Ventura Freeway in the last decade, McGarry said.

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