Selling the Ranch

Los Angeles is so desperate for parks that when a scrap of toxic land near downtown known as the Cornfields was salvaged for public use in March, it was front-page news.

Same with a sliver of industrial space at Taylor Yard, former oil fields in Baldwin Hills and an old DWP storage yard in South-Central: all now or soon to be urban parks. Even the emasculated L.A. River is receiving unprecedented attention from anyone craving a respite from the endless concrete.

So residents who are sick of subsisting on one acre of open space per 1,000 people might want to take a fresh look at a piece of land four times as big as all those projects combined -- the rolling, untrammeled stretch just north of the L.A. County line known as Ahmanson Ranch.

“You need to create public space for people in the inner cities, and the way to do that, in many cases, is by purchasing and renovating contaminated properties,” said state Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, whose district borders Ahmanson Ranch. “But you also have to put out the effort to save the last great open spaces in our region, and Ahmanson Ranch is one of them.”

The ranch, which is bigger than Griffith Park, is now in the midst of a protracted battle that will determine whether it remains open space or -- under a proposed muddle of roadways, retail outlets, golf courses and pricey tract houses -- morphs into the northernmost edge of L.A.’s urban sprawl.

This Saturday, Pavley and state Senator Sheila Kuehl are sponsoring a public hearing on the project at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. Residents will be able to air their concerns and learn what, exactly, could be lost. Actor, director and political activist Rob Reiner, who was instrumental in the passage of a 1998 statewide initiative that taxed cigarettes to pay for educational programs, is planning to launch a major push against the project in September.

Some 400 acres of native grasslands and 8,000 valley and coastal live oaks grow on the former cattle ranch, also home to Chumash burial grounds, the rare California red-legged frog and a delicate blue-petaled plant called the spineflower, which was thought to be extinct until it was found here. Two streams that make up the Malibu Creek watershed carry steelhead and goby, both of which are endangered. The proposed development includes 3,050 homes, two golf courses, a hotel and 400,000 square feet of office and retail space.

For more than a decade, developers have locked horns with environmentalists and community activists. In addition to concerns over the fate of the plant and animal species, residents and activists are alarmed at the increased air and water pollution the project would bring -- upwards of 40,000 additional daily car trips on local streets and the 101 Freeway, plus contaminated runoff that would be carried via Malibu Creek to Surfider Beach, already the most polluted beach in the Santa Monica Bay. “This goes beyond a few flowers and red-legged frogs,” Kuehl said. “People are really beginning to focus on how detrimental this would be to all of us.”

Even though most of the environmental damage from the project would be felt in L.A. (all traffic access is on the L.A. side), decisions regarding the development are under the control of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, which in 1992 agreed to let the project move forward and has since made it clear that it has no intention of changing course.

Kuehl and Pavley do not have plans to introduce state legislation to alter the course of the project, but both said they hope a strong turnout will help build momentum against development.

Ideally, Kuehl said, public pressure will force the owner of the land, Seattle-based Washington Mutual Bank, to become a willing seller, enabling California to buy the property for parkland. But the bank, which acquired the ranch in 1998, when it took over Home Savings, has dug in its heels, recently hiring former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to lobby state and federal agencies on behalf of the development.

Over the years, environmentalists have employed legal maneuvers similar to those used at the giant Playa Vista project, keeping Ahmanson developers at bay with more than a dozen lawsuits. Most recently, in June, five environmental groups and the city of Calabasas sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Gale Norton to force them to list the spineflower as endangered.

The Department of Fish and Game is holding a hearing August 23 in Santa Barbara to determine whether the flower should be listed as endangered. If they do, the project could be delayed as Washington Mutual tried to come up with a way to mitigate the threat. “One of the most important things we can do is shine a bright public light on this project,” Kuehl said. “We need to let them know that we are not going away.”

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