Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy steps closer to purchasing Ahmanson Officials are tight-lipped on price tag.

Estimates of the 2,800-acre site run anywhere between $100 million and $500 million.

By Penny O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

The purchase of Ahmanson Ranch by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy moved once step closer to reality last Friday, when the state Public Works Board approved the 2,800-acre site as being a valuable state resource that warrants purchase with state proposition funds.

But even as the deal appears to be going forward, no one close to negotiations is talking about what the price tag might be or predicting an end-point to the deal making. Washington Mutual spokesperson Tim McGarry would only confirm that the process was ongoing. McGarry said the bank would have no comment until the negotiations concluded one way or the other. Some estimates put the cost of buying the property as low as $100 million although other sources say it could run as much as $500 million. In either case, this will make it the most expensive acquisition in the Santa Monica Mountains.

In comparison, just more than 10 years ago-as part of Ventura County’s approval of the $2 billion two-golf course community- conservancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston negotiated the purchase of 2,300-acre Jordan Ranch two canyons north of the Ahmanson property for $27 million, in a complicated deal involving Bob Hope that effectively transferred some of the development rights on the Jordan property onto the Ahmanson land. At the time, Home Savings owned Ahmanson. Washington Mutual acquired the land along with project approvals when it bought the Southern California financial institution. Subsequently, the Seattle-based financial institution donated an additional 8,000 acres of land to the public. If the sale currently being negotiated goes through, it would mean some 13,000 acres of open space would have been placed under either state or federal protection as fallout from the Ahmanson Ranch project.

In all, voters approved $3.4 billion when they passed Prop 50 last year. The clean water initiative earmarks approximately $300 million to protect watersheds and wetlands in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and reports

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are that Assemblyperson Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) was instrumental in making sure funds were included in the proposition to purchase “regionally significant” resources such as Ahmanson Ranch and the Ballona Wetlands at Playa del Rey.

“Beginning when the Ahmanson Ranch project was approved in 1992,” Pavley said, “I was convinced it must be saved as public open space. There is the issue of the two endangered species on the property and the fact that it is located at the top of the Malibu Creek watershed, which is the second largest watershed that drains into Santa Monica Bay.”

Although no plans have been made for the financial disposition of the Ahmanson land should a deal between the conservancy and Washington Mutual go through, the conservancy has traditionally not functioned as a land management agency and usually passes on its purchases to the state or federal government. Jordon Ranch now belongs to the National Park Service and is administered as part of its Cheseboro Canyon unit of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area north of the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills. And the National Park Service now owns Solstice Canyon in Malibu, which was donated to the conservancy by the Roberts family.

Because the Ahmanson Ranch property would be purchased with state funds, conservancy Deputy Director Rori Skei suggested

it might remain with the conservancy, although Skei didn’t discount speculation that it could also end up in the hands of the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

In other developments, the City of Calabasas, which spearheaded a lawsuit against the Ventura County Board of Supervisors for certifying an inadequate supplemental environmental impact report for the project in December 2002, has indicated it will drop the lawsuit as well as a suit alleging violations of the state Brown Act if the sale goes through. Malibu is involved in the CEQA case along with Thousand Oaks and Agoura Hills and a variety of environmental organizations. Malibu Mayor Ken Kearsley has indicated the city would drop its interest in the lawsuit if the conservancy acquisition of the Ahmanson property goes through. Kearsley is also on record that the City Malibu supports the purchase and the retention of land as open space.

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