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Ventura County

Agency Eyes Funds for Ahmanson Site

Conservancy plans to seek bond money, though Washington Mutual still hasn't committed to a sale.

August 16, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Taking the first official step toward purchase of Ahmanson Ranch, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is set to apply later this month for state bond money to acquire the rolling 2,800-acre cattle ranch and preserve it as parkland.

"The conservancy is going ahead to authorize the acquisition," said Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy, a state parks agency.

"There is a surprising consensus of experts that this is the most biologically important property in the Santa Monica Mountains area," the conservancy's head said.

For two months, state officials have been discussing a possible deal with ranch owner Washington Mutual, whose plans to build a 3,050-home golf course project have been blocked for years by legal challenges.

No price has been set, Edmiston said, and Washington Mutual has not yet committed to a sale. But the first of two land appraisals has been completed and a second is nearing completion, he said.

Edmiston would not discuss a potential price. But nongovernmental sources familiar with the property have said it could sell for between $100 million and $300 million, with part of the value coming from federal tax credits.

The conservancy, which buys and oversees land in the mountains surrounding the San Fernando Valley, has placed on its Aug. 25 board agenda a request for a state Wildlife Conservation Board grant to help pay for Ahmanson Ranch.

The board is also expected to authorize Edmiston to negotiate a purchase price with Washington Mutual, and to approve a plan for management of the new park.

"There's going to be an item on our agenda authorizing us to apply for any and all state grants," Edmiston said. "We're in negotiations now to try to find the last few million."

These are the first moves necessary to allow other state agencies to consider a purchase.

A purchase is also subject to approval by the state Department of General Services, which reviews property appraisals, and the state Public Works Board.

Edmiston said the source of most of the money would be last year's Proposition 50 bond issue. Under the $2.1-billion water bond, at least $300 million is dedicated exclusively to purchase parkland and wildlife habitat in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Ahmanson is in easternmost Ventura County, on the Los Angeles County line.

Edmiston said the money would come from a variety of state sources.

Resources Agency Secretary Mary Nichols, who initiated talks with Washington Mutual, said Friday in a press release that discussions are going well.

"The approval of these items, while procedural, is an important step to allow the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to take a lead role in the negotiations," she said. "These agenda items send an important signal that the state is serious about this acquisition if we can reach an arrangement with the landowner based on an approved appraisal."

Tim McGarry, spokesman for Washington Mutual, declined comment and said the company "will not comment on the process until it is completed."

McGarry also insisted that the developer was continuing to seek all permits needed to build the controversial project.

The $2-billion project, first approved in 1992 by Ventura County supervisors, has been blocked ever since by more than a dozen lawsuits, studies of a rare frog and endangered wildflower and then, last year, by a costly, high-profile campaign led by Hollywood celebrities.

The project is still tied up in court in a lawsuit filed by several Los Angeles County jurisdictions after Ventura County gave the project the green light again in December -- approving a new environmental study.

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