Debate heats up over Ahmanson project

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In attempting to address pollution accusations by environmentalists, Ahmanson Land Co. developers announced they would file a new permit application to fill in part of Las Virgenes Creek.

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

It was business as usual on Dec. 3 as a group of environmentalists once again squared off against the Ahmanson Land Co., developers of the 3,000-home, multi-use project slated to be built 12 miles north of Malibu, near Las Virgenes Road and the 101 freeway.

The standoff occurred at an information-only workshop sponsored by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board at Bradley Hall on the UCLA campus. The immediate issue was a permit that would allow Ahmanson to fill in slightly more than 1 linear mile of Las Virgenes Creek, but local environmentalists, including representatives from Heal the Bay, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Santa Monica BayKeeper, Ventura Coastkeeper and Lawyers for Clean Waters, seized the occasion to review a litany of concerns about the project they contend will affect downstream water quality.

These include inadequate Ahmanson plans for keeping 1 million gallons a day of sewage effluent out of Malibu Creek as well as sediment, storm water and polluted runoff that will further pollute already contaminated creek waters, Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach, currently the most polluted beach in Santa Monica Bay.

Although he wasn’t specific, Ahmanson Land Co. President Guy Gniadek rebutted the environmentalists’ charges, insisting the project will be “a model of water quality management” and will actually improve conditions in upper Las Virgenes Creek, which flows into Malibu Creek just north of Malibu Canyon.

Led by Mark Gold of Heal the Bay, representatives of the environmental organizations expressed their concerns that the use of imported water to irrigate the project’s two golf courses, parks and other public spaces, plus private landscaping, will increase the flow of water in Las Virgenes Creek and thus Malibu Creek, leading to sedimentation that would threaten downstream populations of steelhead trout and tidewater goby.

Scientists, testifying on behalf of the environmental coalition, also expressed concern that pollution from pesticides and herbicides from the golf courses, and increased urban runoff from the project’s roads and other impervious surfaces could push the entire Malibu Creek watershed over the edge.

“The Malibu Creek watershed is already on the brink of environmental disaster,” said Gold. “Malibu creek and lagoon are polluted with nutrients and fecal bacteria from urban runoff, broken septic systems, horse ranches and discharges from the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility.”

Gniadek told the board the environmentalists’ objections would be addressed in the new permit application the company intends to submit in February. He also expressed his view that the hearing was premature and that opponents to the project are “naturally adverse to any kind of growth.”

Although the development was awarded the required permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in 1997, the discovery of the red legged frog, a federally listed endangered species, and the San Fernando Valley spineflower, newly listed as endangered, triggered the need for a revised dredge-and-fill application that would consider measures to protect these resources. The local permit from the regional water quality control board must be issued before the corps can makes it decision on the federal permit.

Ahmanson’s legal counsel referred to the revised application as a matter of a few “modifications and corrections” while members of the environmental coalition argued the discovery of the frog and the spineflower, among other changed conditions, constituted sufficient reason for the board to reconsider its previous certification. Local lawmakers, including Congressmen Brad Sherman and Henry A Waxman, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, Assemblymember Fran Pavley, Los Angeles City Councilmember Dennis Zine and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, supported the coalition’s position.

Water board representative Raymond Jay indicated that, despite the evening’s testimony, he doubted the board would take any action on the local permit until after Ahmanson filed its application.