Ahmanson purchase announced

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Nearly a done deal, the agreement just has to go before the Public Works Commission on Oct. 10.

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

As of Tuesday evening, environmentalists, local lawmakers and dignitaries were planning to gather among the oaks and chaparral at Ahmanson Ranch on Wednesday to hear Gov. Gray Davis announce the state’s purchase of the 2,800-acre property from Washington Mutual, which had planned to develop the site as a 3,050-home community with office buildings and shopping centers.

The development, which now appears to be permanently forestalled, had been the object of a 17-year debate pitting advocates for open space against supporters who saw it as a way to ease the housing crunch in Southern California.

Santa Monica Mountains Conversancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston, who has been negotiating a purchase agreement with the Seattle-based financial institution, and director Rob Reiner and HBO executive Chris Albrecht, founders of the coalition Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, which supported the purchase of the property to preserve it as “one of Southern California’s last remaining open spaces,” planned to be there as well.

The purchase, which was long deemed improbable because of lack of funds and Washington Mutual’s instance on developing, materialized in part because of the potential availability of money from Proposition 50, an environmental initiative okayed by the voters last year. Washington Mutual signaled that it was willing to discuss a sale with the state in June, and the deal was given a final push on Sept. 30, when the state Wildlife Conservation Board voted to approve allocating $135 million of the $300 million from the bond issue, which was designated for coastal preservation in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, toward the purchase. Last week, the state Coastal Conservancy also allocated $10 million to help secure the ranch for the public.

“We’re aware that the board met and did approve a certain amount of funds,” said Washington Mutual spokesperson Adrian Rodriguez. “But it’s not a done deal yet.” Rodriguez referred to the fact the agreement still has to go before the Public Works Commission on Oct. 10.

The Ahmanson Ranch property is highly valued by conservationists because it is located in the Santa Monica Mountains Zone and is considered crucial to maintaining the ecosystem of the mountains, and because on its own it contains valuable natural and cultural resources, including a stand of rare California grassland and a site long sacred to local Native Americans.

Washington Mutual, the nation’s largest lending bank, acquired the property in 1998 when it bought Home Savings. By then, the planned community with two golf courses, which is located in Ventura County but was planned to have its only access through Los Angeles County, had been approved, which helped boost the appraised value of the acquisition to $300 million.

The $2-billion development, which as late as last December Ventura County supported as a solution to the county’s housing crunch, was routinely criticized by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Los Angeles City Councilmember Dennis Zine for the 37,500 cars a day it would add to the Ventura Freeway, air pollution expected to be generated during grading and construction, and as a threat to two endangered species-the red-legged frog and the newly rediscovered San Fernando Valley spineflower.

Advocates of the project cited the low-income housing Washington Mutual insisted would be part of the development, and the jobs created over six years of construction, and later, for the golf course and hotel. Under the conditions of developing the ranch, Washington Mutual has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past five years protecting the frog and the spineflower-a plant thought to be extinct for decades.

If the deal is signed, it may well be due in part to Reiner and Albrecht’s $1.5 million campaign, which was inspired by another organization-Agoura Hills-based Save Open Space, whose founder, Mary Wiesbrock, has spoken out against the project since 1990. Local communities, including Calabasas, also opposed the development, as has the City of Malibu because of its impact on local traffic and the environment.