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Ranch Owner Ready to Quit?

Washington Mutual, which has been trying to develop the 3,050-home Ahmanson project for years, is discussing selling land to the state.

June 24, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

After insisting for years that it would not sell Ahmanson Ranch, Washington Mutual has confirmed discussions with top state officials to possibly transfer the rolling cattle ranch to a parks agency while abandoning plans for a 3,050-home golf course development.

California Resources Agency Secretary Mary Nichols initiated talks several weeks ago for possible purchase of the 2,800-acre ranch in east Ventura County, Washington Mutual spokesman Adrian Rodriguez said.

But no agreement has been reached, he said, cautioning that the talks may end without a deal.

"The secretary of resources asked us to consider whether we'd be willing to adjust our plans for the remaining 2,800 acres of the ranch," he said. "Informal discussions have been going on between members of the Ahmanson Ranch project team and members of the secretary's office for the last several weeks.

"But there is no guarantee anything will result from these discussions," he said. "We continue to be focused on completing the [development] entitlement process."

Nichols could not be reached for comment late Monday. And Stanley Young, communications director for the Resources Agency, said he knew nothing of the discussions.

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.

Acquisition of the ranch would put in public hands the largest privately owned parcel in the mountains surrounding the San Fernando Valley.

"We've always said that we'd be willing to listen to any reasonable request or input regarding the project," Rodriguez said.

But the recent discussions represent the first time Washington Mutual has engaged in discussions aimed at the possible sale of the ranch, which it acquired in a 1998 purchase of H.F. Ahmanson Co.

State parks officials have said repeatedly that they think a deal can be reached if Seattle-based Washington Mutual were a willing seller. But some of those same officials said Monday that they don't think a deal is close.

Joseph T. Edmiston, who has bought huge tracts of land as executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said it is premature to talk about the Ahmanson Ranch purchase as imminent.

"There's no contracts, no appraisal, no board actions, no agreement on behalf of anybody in Sacramento and no agreement on behalf of anybody in Seattle," he said. "This would be a wonderful acquisition if there was a willing seller and there was money. But right now there aren't those two ingredients."

Ahmanson opponents, however, point to $300 million provided by Proposition 50, approved by voters last year, that is dedicated exclusively to purchase parkland and wildlife habitat in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

"I certainly do believe a deal can be done," said Chad Griffin, campaign manager for Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch. "Our campaign has focused on convincing Washington Mutual to sell to the state and on building a very strong coalition, including the governor, to support the acquisition of Ahmanson Ranch."

With a sale, Washington Mutual could benefit from cash payments and tax breaks while seeking to polish its image as the nation's largest savings bank.

The tax breaks could come through federal conservation easements.

Across the U.S., such easements are an increasingly popular tax device used by large landowners.

Boston tax attorney Stephen Small, who wrote the 1980 Internal Revenue Service code that allows such breaks, said last year that corporations need only prove that their gifts have a "significant conservation value" to qualify for a write-down of up to 10% of their taxable income.

Washington Mutual could make full use of the tax break because the corporation, with $243 billion in assets, reported net earnings in 2001 of $3.1 billion. So it could potentially write off $310 million a year and do so until the market value of the gift is reached.

Washington Mutual won't confirm the value of Ahmanson Ranch, but sources close to the project said its net value was appraised at $300 million a decade ago, and was valued at more than double that after Washington Mutual acquired it.

Foes of the Ahmanson Ranch project say the value is much lower because of the legal difficulties in building on the ranch.

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