Public being misled by Ahmanson developers, opposition charges

Report is delayed on issues of endangered species, air quality, water supply, fire hazard, sewage treatment and disposal, and traffic.

By P. G. O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

While opponents of the 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch development anxiously awaited the Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) due out last week, a recently-formed opposition group alleged pro-development interests in Ventura County have held up issuing the report to allow the developer time to counteract the negative aspects of the report once it’s released.

Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch alleges that Washington Mutual is stalling for time to implement a public relations campaign favoring the report.

Washington Mutual spokesman Jim McGarry dismissed the idea the large savings and loan had attempted to influence the process of developing the SEIR in any way.

“Neither Washington Mutual nor the Ahmanson Land Co. have any control whatsoever over the Supplemental EIR or the timing of its release,” McGarry insisted.

The allegations concerning Washington Mutual were made in a letter sent Feb. 15 to Ventura County planner Dennis Hawkins, who has been handling the Ahmanson supplemental report. The letter was signed by movie producer Rob Reiner and HBO program executive Chris Albrecht, co-founders of Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, and refers to recent full-page newspaper ads touting the benefits of the project and a “slick” brochure that “misleads” Ventura County residents about its effects.

The Ahmanson Ranch SEIR was originally scheduled to be released in September 2001, and the delay has caused concern among many observers, including Mary Wiesbrock of the local preservationist group, Save Open Space, who surmises the delay was also calculated to give Washington Mutual time to lobby lawmakers in Sacramento.

The original EIR for the project, which was planned for a mix of single-family homes, townhouses and apartments, two golf courses, a hotel and 400,000 feet of commercial space, was certified in 1992. In 1999, biologists for the project discovered two species of concern on the property, the San Fernando Valley spineflower, a member of the buckwheat family last seen in 1929 and thought to be extinct, and the California red-legged frog, a threatened species once made famous in Mark Twain’s story, “Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County.”

Environmentalists have been critical of Ahmanson Land Co. plans to protect the frog and the spineflower, and at one point Rep. Brad Sherman remarked it appeared the mitigation efforts amounted to moving some dirt around to protect the flower and dumping it on the frog.

Hawkins said the delay in issuing the report was caused in part by the range of new studies triggered by the discovery of the two sensitive species. Crucial to determining whether the developer’s mitigation measures are sufficient, is a population model for the frog designed to determine if changes in the environment due to the project are likely to result in local extinction of the threatened species.

Another study will evaluate the potential for additional undiscovered plant populations on the Ahmanson property, including whether the 40 football fields of grading required and the subsequent irrigation once the project is built will affect the health of the spineflower and any other species that might turn up.

The measures Ahmanson plans to use to protect the frog include a bridge over the pools where it breeds and expanding the existing habitat by creating additional breeding areas. Plans also call for an endowment fund to help propagate and reintroduce the spineflower and the frog in “additional suitable habitat.”

In the case of the spineflower, this includes a 333-acre preserve designed as a core habitat within a larger area of natural vegetation where the plant may spread, as well as the development of buffer zones between the planned community and the core habitat.

Aside from examining whether the developer’s plans to protect the frog and the spineflower are adequate, the SEIR will also address issues of air quality, water supply, fire hazard, sewage treatment and disposal and traffic. All are subjects that have been under scrutiny from Los Angeles County residents in the Conejo Valley and northern end of the San Fernando Valley as well as environmental organizations such as Heal the Bay, which is concerned the developer’s plans fall short on a number of counts.

According to Heal the Bay Director Mark Gold, his organization is concerned about habitat for both the tidewater goby and the steelhead trout, specifically the degree to which sediment from grading and pollution from storm water runoff from the development’s roads and other impermeable surfaces, and golf course pesticides, will affect Malibu Creek and Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.

The organization has criticized the developer’s plans for wastewater management and disposal of effluent from sewage treatment. Although current plans call for disposal of all reclaimed water on site and indicate the project will actually buy water from the Tapia wastewater plant in Malibu Canyon, Heal the Bay recently took issue with the numbers Ahmanson is using to balance its water calculations.

“They promised all along they wouldn’t dispose of any effluent in Malibu Creek,” said Gold. “But their numbers prove this isn’t possible.”

Heal the Bay is also worried that if the development sends its sewage sludge to Tapia for processing as it currently plans, this will also increase the level of nutrients and bacteria in the creek.

Once published, the SEIR will undergo a period of public comment as part of a hearing before the Ventura County Environmental Review Committee, which will decide whether or not to certify the report and send it on to the county Planning Commission. Once it passes Planning Commission scrutiny, the report goes on to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, where the current pro-developer majority is expected to certify it as the supervisors did the original report in 1992, at that time overriding the Planning Commission’s recommendation against the project.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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