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Recall Adds Urgency to Proposed State Purchase of Ahmanson Site

Conservationists who want to see the land preserved say that political uncertainty makes it imperative that a deal be struck soon.

August 27, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Concerned about the uncertainty of the recall election, conservationists on Tuesday urged state officials to move quickly to purchase the Ahmanson Ranch property before the Oct. 7 vote because a new administration might not be as supportive of the deal as Gov. Gray Davis.

The board of directors of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state parks agency, voted this week to authorize negotiations with ranch owner Washington Mutual, which plans to build a 3,050-home golf course project on the oak-studded property in eastern Ventura County.

On Tuesday, supporters of the conservancy's action said that time was of the essence in securing a purchase agreement. They fear a recall could derail a deal with the state.

"The governor supports this and so the question is, if he's no longer governor, what would happen?" said Mary Wiesbrock, the Agoura Hills activist who started the fight against the Ahmanson Ranch development a decade ago. "We need this done now."

Rorie Skei, chief deputy director of the conservancy, agreed the recall was raising concerns about the potential political fallout. She said Washington Mutual was growing anxious and was actively seeking to develop the property.

"There are a lot of unknowns and that particular, big unknown on the horizon has got the seller feeling a sense of urgency too," Skei said. "There's a tight time frame because of all the uncertainties. [Washington Mutual] told us they are willing to entertain our offer

Skei, whose agency buys and oversees land in the mountains surrounding the San Fernando Valley, said a purchase agreement could be reached by late September if all goes well.

No price has been set, and Washington Mutual has not committed to a sale. The Seattle-based company has declined to comment on the matter.

State Resources Agency Secretary Mary Nichols, who initiated talks with the ranch owner this summer, said the conservancy board's action sent a strong message to Washington Mutual that the state was serious about buying the property. But she said the company was also talking to development firms.

"They have an obligation to get a profit for their shareholders," she said. "And I'm sure they would like to get that profit sooner rather than later."

Nichols acknowledged the concerns of conservationists.

"I don't know what any other potential governor might want to do with this particular project," she said. "But in the minds of the advocates, it's more desirable to get it all done before the election."

State Sen. Tom McClintock, a Republican gubernatorial candidate whose district is based in Thousand Oaks, said Tuesday he did not know enough about the purchase plan to decide whether it would be a good deal for the state.

"I've always viewed Ahmanson as a local land use issue that was up to Ventura County to decide," he said. "I've never dealt with it."

He said he was not sure of the status of the Proposition 50 bond money that would be a principal source of funds for the Ahmanson purchase. And he said he would want to know more about how the purchase price would be determined.

Under the $2.1-billion bond issue approved by voters last year, at least $300 million is dedicated exclusively to purchase parkland and wildlife habitat in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Representatives of Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democratic candidate, could not be reached for comment.

If a purchase deal is sealed before the election, it would end a decade-old battle between development forces and conservationists who have sought to preserve the cattle ranch on the Los Angeles County line. The $2-billion project, approved in 1992, has been stalled by lawsuits from neighboring cities that would be affected by the increased traffic it would generate.

Two years ago, the development controversy caught the attention of Hollywood celebrities Rob Reiner, Martin Sheen and Chris Albright, an HBO executive, who formed Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch. The umbrella organization's costly and high-profile campaign against Washington Mutual helped bring the banking firm -- whose largest client base is in Southern California -- to the negotiating table.

"I do believe, ultimately, that a deal is going to happen," said Chad Griffin, campaign manager for Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch. "Washington Mutual cannot do business in Southern California if they move forward with this project. They would be forever branded with environmental destruction."

Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett said the time was right for a deal, even without a recall, largely because of the availability of state money.

"It's always prudent if you have the ability to do it, to do it," Bennett said. "Things can change. You never know what may happen down the road."

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