Sheen, Reiner take up Ahmanson Ranch cause


Martin Sheen says he closed his Washington Mutual bank accounts, opposing the development of Ahmanson Ranch.

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

Malibu resident and environmental activist Martin Sheen recently added his name to the long list of public officials and community organizations who oppose the development of Ahmanson Ranch, a 3,000-home residential and commercial project planned near the head of Malibu Canyon near Calabasas.

Sheen joined movie producer Rob Reiner and HBO President of Executive Planning Chris Albrecht at a press conference Nov. 14 in front of the Canoga Park branch of Washington Mutual, the Seattle-based financial institution that plans to break ground on the development in early 2003.

The purpose of the event was to announce the formation of Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, a coalition of Los Angeles and Ventura County organizations that are against the project and want the land, which is part of the Santa Monica Mountains zone, to remain undeveloped.

At the press conference, Sheen told a gathering of environmentalists, local residents and elected officials he closed his Washington Mutual bank accounts two months ago. In a take-off on his Emmy Award-winning role in the TV series “West Wing,” he declared the property a federal preserve and “off-limits to Washington Mutual and anyone else.”

A spokesman for Washington Mutual, which acquired the 90-acre parcel when it bought out Home Savings, insists the Ahmanson project is environmentally sound and will provide much-needed housing for Southern California.

“Science, not celebrities, will decide the future of the project,” said a bank spokesman, referring to elaborate studies the developer has undertaken to protect any environmental resources that might turn up on the property, including two endangered species discovered after the project was approved.

“We have created a model of smart growth that balances the preservation of natural resources with the needs of people,” said Guy Gniadek, president of the Ahmanson Land Company, in a press release. “We’re confident that the more thoughtful environmentalists know about this planned community, the more they will like it.”

Neither Reiner nor Albrecht live in areas likely to be affected by the project and both insist what they object to is a “new city” being planned in the Santa Monica Mountains. Reiner, who championed Proposition 10, the anti-tobacco initiative, says he’s particularly concerned about “horrendous air pollution” that will result if the project is allowed to add as many as 40,000 to 50,000 more cars on the Ventura Freeway, which is already running more than 100 percent beyond capacity.

Washington Mutual disputes these figures, claiming its studies indicate a little more than 37,000 new vehicles a day. The company also points out that once completed, the project will preserve the majority of the acreage as open space.

Both supporters and critics admit one of the unique challenges of the development is that it’s planned for Ventura County but the only access will be through Los Angeles County communities. L.A. planning and health officials are already on record about financial costs to the county to clean up traffic and air and water pollution during construction, and once the development is up and running. Planners in Ventura County overseeing the development insist, however, that adequate environmental safeguards are in place that will minimize negative downstream effects on Malibu, Calabasas, West Hills and other northern San Fernando Valley communities.

Ventura County approved the Ahmanson Ranch development in 1992 in an elaborate deal between the developers, the National Park Service and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy that saved 4,000 acres in nearby Cheesebro and Palo Camado canyons and required the developers to acquire and then deed 7,000 acres of additional parkland to the public.

Both sides are currently awaiting the results of a supplemental environmental impact report (EIR) from Ventura County due out sometime in December. The revised report was called for when a rare plant, the San Fernando Valley spineflower thought to be extinct, and the red-legged frog were discovered on the property.

Reiner and other coalition members insist the old EIR is outdated and want a new report to address other changes that have taken place in the area in the 10 years since the first report was made public. At least three of the five-member Ventura County Board of Supervisors disagrees, and Supervisor Frank Schillo described the three well-meaning celebrities as falling into a trap based on misinformation.

Beyond the stated goal of a new EIR, there were also hints that an elaborate public information campaign might be in the works designed to put pressure on Washington Mutual to give up the development entirely.

“Once the truth is exposed,” said Reiner, “we want to sit down with Washington Mutual and put together a coalition to talk about buying back this land.”

Currently the bank has signaled no interest in being open to such discussions. The developers stand by the project as a sound example of smart growth and have hired former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to promote it as “green” development.