After almost a decade of delays, a judge Wednesday ordered the L.A. County Regional Planning Commission to decide by Oct. 31 whether the developer of Ahmanson Ranch can remove 10 oak trees along a critical access route to its project site.
A removal permit was initially granted to the developer in 1993, but opponents of the 3,050-home mini-city filed an appeal the following year. Since then, the planning commission has taken the matter off its calendar 15 times.
Washington Mutual Inc., which wants to break ground on its 2,800-acre project in eastern Ventura County next year, filed a lawsuit in April to force L.A. County planners to finally review the appeal and settle the issue.
In her ruling Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs said the commission abused its discretion by failing to decide the matter in a timely manner.
"The judge has agreed with us that it's time for the county to make a decision," said Tim McGarry, a Washington Mutual spokesman. "This permit is fairly necessary if this project is to come to fruition and the community is to be built."
The company wants to extend Thousand Oaks Boulevard through unincorporated L.A. County to the western edge of the Ahmanson Ranch site, which borders Woodland Hills north of Calabasas. Washington Mutual would plant 20 oak trees to replace those it removes.
The company argued that since 1990, L.A. County has issued 139 oak tree permits in the area near Malibu, allowing for the removal of more than 3,100 trees. Only one application was denied during that period.
L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a staunch Ahmanson Ranch opponent, said the most recent delay was tied to concerns regarding other lawsuits that seek to block the project. He said the planning commission should have no problem deciding on the appeal by the judge's deadline.
"The county just wanted to know that when it acts on the oak tree permit, that it won't be prejudiced on its lawsuit on the bigger picture -- about the adequacy of the environmental impact report," Yaroslavsky said. "We didn't want the little tail wagging the big dog."
Development of the $2-billion Ahmanson Ranch, which would include office buildings and two 18-hole golf courses, has been blocked by more than a dozen lawsuits, additional environmental study following the discoveries of a rare frog and an endangered wildflower on the site, and high-profile protests by celebrities, including director Rob Reiner and actor Martin Sheen.
The permit hearing may ultimately be inconsequential. Washington Mutual officials indicated last month that they have begun informal discussions about possibly selling the property to the state for parkland.