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Newhall Ranch a World Away From Ahmanson

Far from L.A.'s wealthy activists, 21,600-home project avoids the outcry over a smaller plan.

February 10, 2003|Richard Fausset and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

Opponents of the 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch subdivision regularly turn out by the hundreds to decry the project's perceived threats to the Santa Monica Mountains, the rugged playground of Los Angeles' posh Westside. They count among their allies many movie stars and Hollywood players -- and a former vice president of the United States.

Just 18 miles to the north there are plans for an even larger development: the 21,600-home Newhall Ranch, on the western edge of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Culturally, the valley is light years from the Westside. It is a ranching community that only recently morphed into suburbia. It's a historically conservative place, where a fierce belief in the primacy of property rights has guaranteed the steady construction of dream homes by the hundreds.

There are no celebrities standing in the way of Newhall Ranch -- just a small group of suburban activists who can barely scrape together 40 people for a demonstration.

"Everybody asks the big question," Santa Clarita resident Tom DiCioccio said at a sparsely attended Newhall Ranch protest last month. "Why isn't there more opposition?"

The different reactions to the region's two largest developments demonstrate that, for growth in Southern California, geography is destiny.

The reactions also highlight a conundrum facing conservationists. With 6 million new residents expected to come to the region over the next 30 years, they will have to decide whether to devote their resources to small, well-known environmental causes closer to urban areas or to larger, lesser-known projects on the region's periphery."Newhall is not in a cool place; it's as simple as that," said William Fulton, publisher of the California Planning and Development Report. "The irony is that the smaller project closer to more rich people gets more attention than the larger project farther away from them. Newhall will probably have a much bigger impact, on the whole."

The project's detractors raise a similar list of concerns about Ahmanson and Newhall: potential degradation of waterways, increased traffic and harm to sensitive species, including a wildflower found on both properties.

Both are on the far edges of their respective counties. Ahmanson is in a southeastern crook of Ventura County that juts close to Calabasas; Newhall is in Los Angeles County, set against Ventura County's eastern border.

Each county's Board of Supervisors has been receptive to the development within its own jurisdiction. But each county is suing to stop the development directly across its boundary; the suits have tied up both projects for years.

Some environmentalists call that hypocrisy. And some say it highlights a long-established strategy for local governments looking to accommodate growth on the cheap: that is, approving big projects on the outskirts of their jurisdictions and forcing neighboring entities to deal with the accompanying burdens.

Dueling Counties

Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long said her county is not trying to palm its responsibilities off on Los Angeles. And Bob Haueter, an aide to Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said Los Angeles supervisors have been consistent on the two projects.

"L.A. County is being asked to bear the burden" of the Ahmanson development while Ventura County benefits, Antonovich said. In contrast, he argued, the effects of Newhall will stay in Los Angeles County.

Both developers contend that their projects are responsible solutions to the region's housing shortage. Newhall Land & Farming Co. has promised to set aside 6,100 acres of open space on its 12,000-acre Newhall Ranch plot. Nearly 10,000 acres of open space have been dedicated around the 2,800-acre Ahmanson building site, according to a spokesman for its developer, Washington Mutual Bank.

Some activists say that is not enough.

"At the end of the day, they're both horrific projects," said Chad Griffin, campaign director for the Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch. "I think the residents of this area should all be working together to protect what precious little open space we have left."

Griffin said his coalition has benefited because Ahmanson is a not-in-my-backyard issue for some very wealthy pockets of west Los Angeles County.

Though a grass-roots opposition has existed since the late 1980s, the heat intensified a couple of years ago when actor Rob Reiner and other Hollywood players got involved.

Since then, interest has snowballed, as Tinseltown Rolodexes produced allies such as former Vice President Al Gore, Martin Sheen and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Sheen has cut radio ads condemning the project, and the money has come rolling in. Meanwhile, the nearby cities of Agoura Hills, Malibu, Calabasas and Los Angeles have sued to block Ahmanson.

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