By Michael Collins
ONE OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’S most bitterly contested development projects took a radical and unexpected turn this week, stunning environmentalists and open-space advocates and possibly indicating a change of heart by developers. On July 7, Washington Mutual, Inc. announced the departure of Guy Gniadek, who was head of the Ahmanson Ranch Land Co.. Gniadek has spent the last 17 years working on the highly controversial Washington Mutual project that would build 3,050 luxury homes on 2,800 acres in the pristine hills west of the San Fernando Valley. Washington Mutual obtained the property when it purchased the H.F. Ahmanson Co. in 1998.
Dave Murphy, a “WaMu” senior vice president, will replace Gniadek. Murphy is a division executive of the mega-bank’s commercial assets division, which specializes in buying and selling property, not developing it. Despite denials by the company, activists across Ventura and Los Angeles counties are seeing this as another sign that the bank may be looking to unload the property.
Last week, ValleyBeat reported that the state’s Resource Department had begun discussions with WaMu regarding the possible acquisition of the acreage as parkland. However, in a written statement issued by the bank Monday, the company maintains it is still going forward with the project. “Under [Murphy’s] leadership, it is the company’s intention to continue with the development approval process for the Ranch and, concurrently, pursue discussions and arrangements with developers and the State regarding the Ranch,” reads the statement.
Pollution concerns regarding the property may be one reason that WaMu may be giving up the ghost on Ahmanson Ranch. The land lies within two miles of Rocketdyne’s heavily polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory, the site of two partial nuclear meltdowns. However, a bank spokesperson, Tim McGarry, denied this was a factor in a July 8 email to ValleyBeat, in which he wrote that WaMu’s concerns about the Ranch did not “have anything to do with Rocketdyne.”
Others aren’t so sure. “I am very pleased to see that the media exposure about the pollution and contamination up at Rocketdyne has really made Washington Mutual take a second look and do the right thing, which is sell the land to the State,” says Christina Walsh, an activist with CleanUpRocketdyne.org. “That’s what we are hoping they will do now. It looks very, very hopeful.”