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State's Longest-Running Project Battle Continues To Rage

Later this month, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors will meet to consider an appeal of the approval of Tentative Tract Map No. TT-5206 and certification of the accompanying Supplemental Environmental Impact Report. At first glance, this tract map approval might seem routine. It is the first of four tract maps that the developer anticipates bringing forward, allowing the developer to build 628 homes, a golf course, and other facilities on 846 acres of unincorporated land. It's a follow-on to a general plan amendment and development agreement previously approved by the Board of Supervisors. The county Planning Commission approved the tract map in November.

But TT-5206 is not routine. Approval of the tract map by the supervisors is not guaranteed. And even if supervisors approve the tract map, the decision will certainly be fought -- in the courts, in the newspapers and even in Sacramento and Washington. The reason is simple: TT-5206 represents the final local government approval required to begin construction on the infamous Ahmanson Ranch project.

No development project in the recent California history has generated so many headlines and so many delays as Ahmanson Ranch. It has been nearly 40 years since the Ahmanson family first hired William Pereira to draw up a plan. It is going on 20 years since Home Savings of America -- which the Ahmanson family founded -- first started talking to Ventura County about development. And, ironically enough, the members of Board of Supervisors are scheduled to act on TT-5206 almost 10 years to the day after they approved the general plan amendment and development agreement for Ahmanson Ranch in the first place.

Yet the battle over Ahmanson Ranch rages, and in many ways the fight is more intense than ever. What is it about this piece of land that has inspired so much outrage by several generations of environmental activists? And what is it about the California planning system that has permitted this fight to continue for so long?

Ahmanson Ranch is a beautiful property perched on the edge of Los Angeles. The ranch originally consisted of 5,400 acres -- some hilly, some flat -- located north of Highway 101. It is cut off from the rest of Ventura County by rugged terrain owned by the National Park Service (as part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area) and by Rockwell International, which used the isolated location to test rocket engines.

But the undeveloped property abuts two intensely developed areas across the county line -- Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley to the west, and Calabasas to the south. This proximity -- which makes Ahmanson Ranch such a prime development site -- has fueled the remarkably tenacious opposition to the ranch's development. Both the west Valley and Calabasas are home to affluent residents accustomed to battling developers. The site is just across the freeway from the Santa Monica Mountains, where environmental activists have done battle with developers parcel-by-parcel for decades. And it is just upstream from Malibu, meaning that you never know which celebrities might get into the act.

Ventura County's approval of the Ahmanson Ranch project in 1992 was part of a larger and carefully constructed political deal to permit some development and protect large amounts of open space. Originally, Ventura County was considering two developments -- an office and housing proposal from Ahmanson, and a luxury golf course proposed for nearby Jordan Ranch, then owned by Bob Hope. The two ranches were separated by Cheseboro Canyon, which the National Park Service already owned.

Jordan Ranch ran into stiff opposition from neighbors in the adjacent Oak Park community. Clamoring for action, the neighbors organized themselves into SOS ("Space Open Space") and helped elect 25-year-old Maria VanderKolk to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in 1990. To save Jordan Ranch, VanderKolk brokered a deal between Jordan and Ahmanson. The Park Service purchased Jordan Ranch, and Jordan and Ahmanson development interests were combined on Ahmanson Ranch. In addition to Jordan Ranch, several thousand acres of other land -- including most of Ahmanson Ranch -- were thrown into the deal as open space.

This was the development agreement that the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved at VanderKolk's urging in 1992. But the project did not move forward immediately. First, several surrounding homeowner associations and cities including Calabasas and Malibu, both of which incorporated in 1991 sued under the California Environmental Quality Act. Ventura County and Home Savings eventually won or settled all the lawsuits, which took place during the recession of the '90s, when the project probably would not have been built anyway. Then Home Savings sold out to Seattle-based Washington Mutual, which thought it was buying an approved project. After that, the California red-legged frog a federally listed threatened species was found on the site, as was the San Fernando Valley spineflower a species not listed as endangered because everybody thought it was extinct.

At this point, the Wednesday night president and his director friend showed up.

Nowhere is celebrity politics more important than in Los Angeles, and so it is not surprising that when "West Wing" star Martin Sheen and film director Rob Reiner came out against the Ahmanson Ranch project, the politics of the situation were profoundly altered. The species issues gave the project's opponents a new hook, especially because the 1992 EIR was aging fast. And Reiner was just coming off of a major political victory with the passage of Proposition 10, a tax on tobacco to fund early-childhood programs.

To assist the longtime SOS activists, Reiner and his colleagues bankrolled a new organization with a professional staff called Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch. Before long, virtually every political figure representing the area -- including L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman and State Sen. Sheila Kuehl -- were working to stop the project. Even Gov. Gray Davis and his resources secretary, Mary Nichols, suggested the state might be interested in buying the expensive real estate.

But this opposition could not stop Washington Mutual from moving forward. Over the last year, WaMu has moved aggressively to get the tract map in front of the Board of Supervisors. WaMu agreed to a Supplemental EIR, which ran to 4,000 pages and concluded that the impact on the two rare species could be mitigated to a level of insignificance.

The timing appeared to be driven largely by politics. Ahmanson supporter Supervisor Frank Schillo VanderKolk's successor will retire in January, to be replaced by environmentalist and avowed Ahmanson opponent Linda Parks. So long as Schillo is on the board, WaMu can probably win a 3-2 vote. Once Schillo is gone, that seems unlikely.

The November action in front of the Ventura County Planning Commission went on for two days and received statewide news coverage, making it the most protracted and highly publicized tract map hearing ever conducted. Dozens of speakers spilled out of the hearing room in Ventura. Opponents trotted out the likes of Dennis Dickerson, the executive director of the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Proponents brought San Fernando City Councilwoman Maria Delatorre, who spoke on behalf of 25 mostly Latino cities in L.A. County on the need for more housing.

In the end, the Planning Commission's action like the probable Board of Supervisors' decision came down to politics cast in process and technical terminology. There are few legitimate grounds for denying a tract map (though significant environmental damage is one of them), and the Planning Commission approved the tract map on a 3-2 vote.

If the board approves the project, we will see more lawsuits and maneuvering. Usually, in situations like this, there are only two possible outcomes. One is for somebody probably the state and federal governments to buy out Washington Mutual. The second is for somebody in the opposition probably Calabasas to fold and make a deal on a smaller project.

But because of Ahmanson's peculiar history, both outcomes seem remote. Despite the campaign rhetoric, it is unlikely the Davis Administration will cough up $300 million to $500 million to buy it. And given the intense, hard-line nature opposition, it seems unlikely that anybody in Calabasas could make a deal without losing face.

So, instead of being a park or a housing development, Ahmanson Ranch will probably spend several more years as a great story. That is the one thing the planning system in California is guaranteed to produce.

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