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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023

GROWTH–Foes of Ahmanson Ranch Targeting WaMu in Seattle

Fueled by a boost in donations from their first radio campaign against Washington Mutual Inc., foes of the huge Ahmanson Ranch housing development are planning a second campaign attacking the Seattle bank’s environmental record. This time, they plan to attack on the company’s home turf. Save Open Spaces Santa Monica Mountains will begin airing a round of radio ads in Seattle this month, hoping to both tarnish the bank’s image and boost its own coffers. “There’s some billionaires there (in Seattle) that are environmentalists,” said Mary Weisbrock, president of SOS. “We’re hoping they’ll hear the ads and join our cause and put pressure on Washington Mutual.” So far the ads, which aired over a month-long period in the L.A. market, have had little effect on Washington Mutual’s plans for Ahmanson Ranch. “There’s been no measurable impact on our operations,” said spokesman Adrian Rodriguez. “We don’t foresee that consumers would be moved by that in the Seattle market.” Washington Mutual owns Ahmanson Land Co., developer of the proposed project on Ventura County’s eastern border. Ahmanson Ranch is a planned community designed to feature 3,000 homes, two golf courses, a country club and 300-room hotel. SOS has spent $7,000 on advertisements that ran through February on KNX-AM 1070. The ads assert that Washington Mutual is “America’s environmental enemy” and urge customers to withdraw money from the thrift in protest. Rodriguez said the company hasn’t seen a decline in deposits or customers as a result of the ads. Meanwhile, donations to SOS have risen 10 percent over last year’s intake since the ads started running, according to Pepper Hernandez, associate director of Malibu-based Social Environmental Entrepreneurs, a worldwide nonprofit environmental group that is the parent organization of SOS. Hernandez declined to provide more specific financial information. The organization plans to use donations it has received since the ads began airing to pay for the campaign in Seattle and other future campaigns, Weisbrock said. In the coming months, SOS plans to expand the fight to other states where Washington Mutual does business, including the Northwest and Florida. “We’ve been filing lawsuits for a decade,” Weisbrock said. “That doesn’t seem to be working.” SOS wants Washington Mutual to turn the 2,800 acres of rolling hills and oaks in the Conejo Valley into a park. Hernandez of SEE said the use of radio and print ads is a common strategy used by opponents of development projects. “It’s a pretty common tactic because you’re trying to get word out to a lot of people,” Hernandez said. “Most (of the campaigns) receive a good response. We get calls from people who want more information and donations.” The ads come at a pivotal time for Ahmanson Ranch. The proposed project is still at least two years away from construction, and the process would be delayed even further if Washington Mutual is required to perform another environmental impact report something SOS has long been calling for. There are a number of federal and local agencies that have yet to sign off on the development. The Army Corps of Engineers held hearings in late February to determine whether Washington Mutual should be required to do a new EIR in order to get a permit to build on wetlands. The developer has proposed filling in several streams on the land. Critics of the project have charged that the 1992 EIR is outdated because of an increase in traffic through the Ventura (101) Freeway corridor and the discovery last spring of endangered frogs and the “extinct” San Fernando spineflower on a portion of the land slated for development. The Army Corps is expected to rule in the coming months. Later this month, the L.A. County Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the removal of nine oaks from a portion of the property. And in April, the first phase of the project will go before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, which will determine what updates to the original EIR are needed. Guy Gniadek, project manager and vice president of Ahmanson Land, said he expects the county to require updated information on the endangered frogs and flower, as well as anything else supervisors feel wasn’t properly addressed in the 1992 EIR. The company is hoping to process the supplemental EIR by year’s end, Gniadek said. Ahmanson Land also must get approval later this year from the Army Corps for its mitigation efforts with the frogs and spineflower. The company has proposed moving the frogs and flowers to other locations not planned for development, and creating an endowment for the species. Ahmanson Land expects to spend next year fighting lawsuits filed against the supplemental EIR. If all goes well, Gniadek hopes to begin construction in early 2002. “We’re moving ahead,” he said. If Ahmanson Land is allowed to move forward with development, all sides agree the project would have a large impact on the San Fernando Valley. Environmentalists fear development would kill the last holdouts of the red-legged frog and the San Fernando Valley spineflower, eat up open space and add pollution and traffic to the San Fernando Valley. Ahmanson Ranch is expected to result in an additional 45,000 cars on the 101 Freeway each day, most flowing into Los Angeles County. But supporters say the project will ease the county’s impending housing crunch and boost sales for Valley businesses. The Valley Industry and Commerce Association has come out in favor of the development, saying it is needed to meet the Valley’s housing needs and that the expected 10,000 residents would be a boon to Valley business. Weisbrock said her group will continue to sue and fight the planned development for as long as it takes. Residents of the Conejo Valley are also continuing efforts against the project.

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