Washington Mutual may end up conserving Ahmanson Ranch, the land it fought to develop for more than a decade

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – September 18, 2003

Recall Ranch is Rocketdyne RanchWith the recall election bearing down on California, Gov. Gray Davis’ administration is in high gear advancing a newly progressive agenda. One initiative in the offing is the administration’s attempt to acquire Ahmanson Ranch in eastern Ventura County as parkland. And, surprisingly, it just might be able to pull that off.

Mega-bank Washington Mutual, which owns the ranch and has pushed relentlessly for years to develop it, arousing rancorous resistance in the process, is suddenly in serious negotiations with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to possibly make the 2,783-acre site into a state park.

“WaMu” had envisioned building 3,050 luxury homes and two golf courses on the pristine property, which is dotted with thousands of oaks and all manner of native California flora and fauna. The development plan was initially approved by the County of Ventura in 1992 and, last December, Ventura’s Board of Supervisors approved the project’s Environmental Impact Report and first phase of construction. This prompted a flurry of lawsuits by surrounding communities, the City and County of Los Angeles, and an alliance of environmental groups concerned about the loss of endangered plant and animal species, traffic congestion, and pollution issues.

An April 11 letter to WaMu CEO Kerry Killinger from Assemblymember Fran Pavley (D-Woodland Hills) began what may be the final push for a park. “I, and many other elected officials, environmental organizations, and community members continue to believe very strongly that Ahmanson Ranch should not be developed, but rather put into public ownership for permanent protection and enjoyment,” she wrote. “I remain hopeful that we all can work together toward attaining a goal that would bring enormous credit to Washington Mutual, to the ultimate benefit to the public for generations to come.”

The ball really got rolling in June, when California Secretary of Resources Mary Nichols contacted the company, saying the state was interested in purchasing the property with Proposition 50 funds, the $336 million earmarked for parkland acquisition in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. WaMu unexpectedly agreed to talk while still pursuing the development. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy,
on August 25, agreed to enter into negotiations to purchase the sprawling site. The initiative advanced further on September 12, when the State Public Works Board approved the Conservancy’s plan.

Part of the impending deal could also include purchase of the Ballona wetlands in Los Angeles’ Playa del Rey. Though not a part of Ahmanson Ranch, the Davis administration may use the Prop. 50 funds
to also snap up some of that much-embattled turf as it pushes to score some high-profile environmental victories.

Naturally, those who have fought to save Ahmanson Ranch are ecstatic over recent developments. “It’s a dream come true for many activists, many cities, and homeowners associations,” says Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, whose district includes Ahmanson Ranch. “The thought of it is almost overwhelming, because of the almost decade and a half that we have worked for this. Not only for everyone in this region, but particularly for future generations. That is so exciting.

“I think there is something to be said for the benefit of being a good corporate citizen on your bottom line,” Parks continues. “If you’re a good corporation, people are going to appreciate you and will become clients of your bank. I know I would be happy to be.”

“Nothing’s a done deal until all the steps have been gone through,” says Ann Baker, Pavley’s principal consultant. “There are serious discussions. We obviously have enough sign-off for the Wildlife Conservation Board to go to the Public Works with an initial round of approval. The Santa Monica Conservancy has done their initial round of approval, and we have three or four more steps still to do before we conclude it. But I think, so far, it’s looking good.”

So far, indeed. “It is premature to treat sale of the ranch as accomplished fact – at this point, no agreement has been reached,” says Tim McGarry, vice president of corporate public relations for Washington Mutual. “These discussions may or may not result in an offer that meets our financial objectives. If not, we will continue to move forward with efforts to build the project. Our fundamental views have not changed – we continue to believe that the Ahmanson Ranch is a good project that would meet a genuine regional need for new housing.”

Hanging in the balance is the recall election. Davis, who has generally been friendly to environmentalists, is under the gun to help make the sale of the ranch and the Ballona Wetlands happen before the recall election. Despite the administration’s strong new strides, the fate of the ranch is still up in the air – even if the recall goes ahead. “It’s possible a new governor could do pretty much anything he likes,” says Stanley Young, communications director at the State Resources Agency. “I’m not a governmental expert, or a legal expert, but I believe that there are executive orders that a [new] governor could put in place to put stuff on hold.”

Euphoria over the sale negotiations is also tempered by the history of the long fight over Ahmanson Ranch. “We have to make [Washington Mutual] see the advantages and do this,” says Mary Wiesbrock of Save Open Space, who, since 1989, has fought to preserve Ahmanson Ranch as a park. “We have to make them realize that they are going to look like heroes. If they renege, it will be horrible, so we have to get them to do this. It won’t happen without them.”

Parks points to Wiesbrock and her group as one of the prime movers in the conservation effort. “I look forward to walking the ‘Mary Wiesbrock Trail’ to China Flat to see one of the most beautiful populations of the endangered San Fernando Valley spineflower,” says Parks. “It’s like that Margaret Mead quote: ‘Never doubt that a small group of concerned people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing
that ever has.’ This is a small group that persevered and never gave up.”

Jonathan Parfrey, director of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, tries to put the battle over Ahmanson Ranch into a larger perspective. “There has to be a new paradigm, a new way of living on the land in California,” Parfrey says. “Preserving the land at Ahmanson Ranch is one way of doing that. Even folks that never go to a wilderness area are somehow ennobled by there being a wilderness, because it gives flight to their imagination that there are still wild places. It’s going to be something that will benefit everybody in Southern California, even if they never visit it. It gives them peace of mind.”