In another sign that the controversial Ahmanson Ranch housing project may never be built, owners have replaced the president of the ranch development company, while continuing talks with state officials about converting the 2,800-acre Ventura County property into parkland.
Washington Mutual Inc., owner of the ranch, confirmed Monday the departure of Guy Gniadek, who had spent 17 years planning and promoting the 3,050-home Ahmanson golf course project at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. Washington Mutual acquired the ranch in 1998 in a purchase of H.F. Ahmanson Co.
Gniadek, 47, did not return telephone calls Monday, but Seattle-based Washington Mutual, the nation's largest savings bank, issued a statement:
"Guy Gniadek has left the Ahmanson Ranch team to pursue other endeavors," it said. "We are most grateful to Guy for the significant amount of time and energy he devoted to advancing the Ahmanson Ranch project."
Dave Murphy, a Washington Mutual senior vice president, has replaced Gniadek as head of the Ahmanson Ranch project, the statement said.
"Under [Murphy's] leadership, it is the company's intention to continue with the development approval process for the ranch and, concurrently, pursue discussions and arrangements with developers and the state regarding the ranch," it said.
Tim McGarry, a company spokesman, would not elaborate. But Gniadek's predecessor and onetime mentor, former Ahmanson Land Co. President Donald Brackenbush, said the change suggests that Washington Mutual is not going to develop the ranch.
"It looks like they've thrown in the towel," said Brackenbush, a Pasadena architect who designed the Ahmanson Ranch plan in the mid-1980s and led the development effort until 1997 when Gniadek took over. "They've switched horses from being a developer to being a seller of park land."
Brackenbush said he had been scheduled to play golf with Gniadek last week. "Then all this happened. It's awful.... And what is really discouraging is all the time and energy and money that's gone into this."
While Brackenbush has insisted that the Ahmanson Ranch development near Calabasas would have been a logical response to the state housing crisis, residents of surrounding communities have described the project as a potential environmental disaster that would bring 37,500 cars a day to clogged Los Angeles County roadways.
The $2-billion project, first approved in 1992, has been blocked by more than a dozen lawsuits, studies of a rare frog and an endangered wildflower and then, last year, a costly high-profile campaign led by Hollywood celebrities. It is still tied up in a lawsuit filed by several L.A. County jurisdictions after Ventura County approved a new environmental study in December.
Ahmanson Ranch, a rolling landscape long used to graze cattle and sheep, is a mix of oak woodlands and grass. It is the largest privately held parcel in the Santa Monica Mountains.
After insisting for years that it would not sell Ahmanson Ranch, Washington Mutual last month confirmed discussions with top state officials to possibly transfer the ranch to a parks agency. A California Resources Agency spokesman said that a state appraisal of the ranch should be completed in several weeks.
Agency Secretary Mary Nichols has said the state is eager to acquire so much open space abutting Los Angeles but won't pay too much for it. Her caution reflects an increasing concern that money from recent bond issues for land and wildlife preservation not be spent on only a few high-priced projects.
In the Los Angeles area alone, Ahmanson Ranch joins a potential 500-acre purchase at the Ballona Wetlands, near Marina del Rey, and 100,000-acre purchase on the mountainous Tejon Ranch, north of Santa Clarita, to complete a key wildlife corridor.
The price for the Ballona Wetlands would likely exceed $100 million, Ahmanson Ranch has been valued at $300 million and more, and Tejon Ranch's more rural acreage could easily cost tens of millions, sources close to those deals have said.
Under Proposition 50, passed last year by voters, at least $336 million is available specifically for projects in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. For Southern California, at least $550 million has been set aside for parkland and wildlife habitat, according to the Resources Agency.
Ahmanson Ranch ranks high on that list because of the land's value as open space in an urban area, its importance as a wildlife corridor and its location at the head of the Malibu Creek watershed, Nichols has said, adding that the land is also perfect for hiking and family outings.
Conversely, Gniadek said in an interview last year that the Ahmanson Ranch development would be a model of "smart growth" development, a self-supporting town of 9,000 people that would mix million-dollar country club estates with hundreds of affordable apartments, condos and "granny flats."
But Gniadek had said he feared further delay.