Anti-Ahmanson Forces Contest Ventura County
By Michael Collins
The five Los County Board of Supervisors sat impassively, January 14th, as an attorney representing the Ahmanson Ranch project pleaded for them not to sue the County of Ventura for signing off on the massive Ahmanson Ranch project. That scheme is designed to build 3,050 luxury homes in the hills of eastern Ventura County hard on Los Angeles County’s border.
“Today you have an opportunity to authorize the County to file another lawsuit against Ventura County regarding the Ahmanson Ranch project,” said Nicki Carlsen of the Los Angeles-based law firm of Weston Benshoof Rochefort Rubalcava MacCuish. The law firm is defending Ventura County and is being paid for by the project’s developer, Washington Mutual. “I guess the only way to sum it up is ‘here we go again.’ About ten years ago, when the Ahmanson Ranch project was first approved, Los Angeles County and a slew of others filed nine lawsuits against Ventura County challenging the original approval of the project. None of those lawsuits was successful. The reason we think they were not successful is because Ventura County took care to present a solid project,” Carlsen continued. “We think Ventura County has taken the same care with the Supplemental EIR (Environmental Impact Report) and the master track plan map today. We think (Los Angeles) County is in a pretty severe budget crisis right now. We don’t feel that the County should spend more time, money and effort fighting the Ahmanson Ranch project and instead should use that money for desperately needed public services needed in the County.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was clearly unimpressed by Carlsen’s presentation. “I appreciate Ms. Carlsen’s concern for the County budget but spare us the crocodile’s tears. If the Ahmanson Ranch project (was) truly concerned about the County budget crisis, they’d suspend their project and spare us the millions and tens of millions of dollars that we are going to have to spend to mitigate traffic impacts by this massive development whose impact is totally imposed on Los Angeles City and County residents, none of which is imposed on Ventura County residents. This is a horrible project. It has not been diligently pursued and reviewed by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. On the contrary, the Board of Supervisors of Ventura County rushed to judgement on this trying to beat the end of the year deadline when a new Supervisor was sworn in and might have changed the balance on the Board. I think they are extremely vulnerable and we should join in protecting our interests as a county. Much of the area to be impacted is unincorporated county territory in the west end of Los Angeles County. (We should) join with the city of Calabasas and others who are going to file a lawsuit, or have filed a lawsuit, on this matter. We should be at the table advocating and pursuing our own interests.”
Without objection, the Board of Supervisors then passed a motion to pursue litigation against the County of Ventura. And they are not alone. The City of Los Angeles filed its lawsuit against the project January 21st and the cities of Malibu and Agoura Hills filed a joint lawsuit January 17th. On Tuesday, the Thousand Oaks City Council voted to join in a suit with the city of Calabasas buoyed by the offer of famed attorney Ed Masry’s to supply free legal services in the lawsuit.
The Ventura-based Environmental Defense Center (EDC) has also chosen to sue the County over Ahmanson Ranch. The EDC is representing a coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, Save Open Space and Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch. Previous lawsuits against the project have repeatedly failed but opponents of Ahmanson Ranch say that circumstances this time around have changed.
“Everything is different this time,” John Buse, staff attorney for the EDC told the Reporter. “The facts, the circumstances are entirely different. I don’t think there is a single claim that somebody raised or litigated before. So it’s a whole new ballgame. We want to emphasize the impact regarding the issues that are (important) to the environmental groups: the impacts of the project to sensitive species and the adequacy of some of the measures to deal with it like the red-legged frog and the Valley spineflower. We want to emphasis the project’s extensive impacts on wetlands and the stream system of the upper Malibu Creek watershed and the impact to water quality to the Malibu Creek watershed. We definitely don’t want to ignore the issues related to perchlorate and Rocketdyne issues. We also want to emphasize the project’s impact on cultural resources. That’s not to say that we aren’t mentioning some issues that other groups are like traffic and air quality. Those are vitally important as well.”
“The (Los Angeles) city suit will first and foremost focus on the environmental impacts of the project that constitute significant new information that was not known and could not have been known when the original EIR was done and has not been considered in the Supplemental EIR that was certified by the county of Ventura,” Los Angeles City Deputy City Attorney Keith Pritzger told the Reporter. “Specifically, we’re talking about traffic impacts and the many issues that surround Rocketdyne among them being water availability but also the possible spread of contamination that has not been fully characterized or analyzed. We’re also concerned about the effect that contaminated water may have on endangered species. We’re concerned about violations of the state’s Map Act. We’re concerned with violations of substantive and procedural due process, in particular, the Brown Act violation that has already been filed as a separate suit by the city of Calabasas where you had the (Ventura County) Planning Commission having secret meetings at the project site with the developer’s attorney and consultants.”
Pritzger agrees with Buse that it’s a whole new ballgame. “What is different here is the new information that has come to light and that, basically, has been ignored by the County. So there is new information. For instance, in regards to air quality, in the last decade we have learned that diesel emissions are a lot more harmful than people thought a decade ago,” Pritzger continued. “Now, in the case of this project, there is going to be a heck of a lot of grading. That grading is going to be done by equipment powered by diesel. There will be trucks going in and out for decades and doing building. There are reasonable things that can be done and should be done to minimize those emissions and accompanying health risks to the adjacent residents. That’s just one example of something new that has come along that I think distinguishes the earlier and first lawsuit that was filed a decade ago.”
The costly Second Act of the battle of Ahmanson Ranch won’t be over anytime soon. “The next step after those lawsuits are filed and they will go to some court,” Pritzger continued. “We will have to decide (if) the cases will be consolidated – they probably will. Where will the cases be heard? Will they be heard in Ventura County or elsewhere and if it is held in Ventura County, who will hear it? Those are issues that will have to be addressed. The assembling of the administrative record, which is all the documents that will go before some judge in the hearing of this matter, will take some months to do. Once that record is assembled then we’ll set up a briefing schedule. Then the lawyers will file briefs on each side for a couple months and then we’ll set up a hearing date and make arguments. So all of this will probably take close to a year.”
Regardless of the monumental challenges facing the litigants, Pritzger is confident they will prevail. “Compared to what we had to work with the last time I was involved a decade ago, I think we have a stronger lawsuit and better arguments this time around,” he said. “Basically, my take on it is that the County of Ventura was in a hurry to get this approved possibly because of one Supervisor leaving office and another Supervisor coming into office. As a consequence of that haste, I believe they made a number of errors in deciding to not more fully evaluate the negative environmental impacts of the project. I think that a court will agree with us that that is the case and therefore invalidate the action by the County of Ventura and send the matter back to them for reconsideration and reevaluation.”