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First Step in Bid to Buy Ahmanson Ranch Approved

A state board authorizes conservation agencies to begin negotiating a deal with the owner, whose development plan is tied up by lawsuits.

September 13, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

A state board that oversees most public land purchases in California on Friday approved the first step in the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's effort to buy the Ahmanson Ranch property for preservation.

The California Public Works Board authorized the conservancy, along with the California Coastal Conservancy and the state Wildlife Conservation Board, to begin negotiating a deal with ranch owner Washington Mutual, whose plan to build a 3,050-home project on the land has been stalled for years by legal challenges from environmentalists.

Washington Mutual spokesman Tim McGarry said the company has agreed to talk with the state, but would not comment on the status of the negotiations.

If an agreement can be reached, the Public Works Board -- made up of officials from several state departments, including finance and general services -- will have final say on whether the state should purchase the property, said Anita Gore, a spokeswoman for the Department of Finance. She said a meeting to consider the purchase has been scheduled for early October.

The $2-billion Ahmanson Ranch housing project was first approved in 1992 by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, but has been stalled ever since by more than a dozen lawsuits, studies of a rare frog and wildflower, and by a costly, high-profile campaign led by Hollywood celebrities.

Ahmanson Ranch has been valued at $300 million or more. Much of the money to buy it would come from Proposition 50, passed last year by voters for land and wildlife preservation. At least $336 million is available for projects in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Louise Rishoff, district director for Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), who is a staunch advocate for the land's purchase, said the action by the Public Works Board is positive news.

"It's another step toward the ultimate goal," Rishoff said.

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