Channel Islands Chapter
Conservation Issue: Ahmanson Ranch
Washington Mutual, a large publicaly held financial corporation headquartered in Seattle, acquired the Ahmanson Ranch around the turn of the century (21st) when it acquired Home Savings & Loan.   Ahmanson Ranch is located in the southeastern corner of Ventura County, on the Los Angeles County line adjacent to Calabasas, Agoura Hills, and West Hills.   The Ventura County Board of Supervisors had previously (n the mid-1990s) approved the Ahmanson Ranch Specific Area Plan to permit a "planned community" be built on this historic ranch, used as the set for many movies.   Ahmanson Ranch occupies 2,983 acres of mostly undeveloped land.

This proposed Ahmanson Ranch project would result in the building of over 21,000 expensive homes, a huge golf course, etc., in pristine habitats that support the California Red-legged Frog and San Fernando Valley Spineflower, and other rare species.   The project, upon buildout, will increase traffic on U.S. 101 by about 20%, and add an hour to your commute to and from Los Angeles into Ventura County.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors fought this project because of the impacts it will have on the citizens of Los Angeles County.   Many individuals and environmental organizations, including the California Native Plant Society, also worked hard to protect the environment of the Ahmanson Ranch.   Read the CNPS response letter on the Ahmanson Ranch Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) here.   A topographic map of the Ahmanson Ranch area, centered on Laskey Mesa, is shown below, along with a photograph of the endangered San Fernando Valley Spineflower (Chorizanthe parryivar.fernandino), which was rediscovered onsite after being presumed extinct (last seen in the 1930s).


Below is a descripton of the Ahmanson Ranch project over time as CNPS and others worked to protect the biological resources of the ranch.   This history is taken from articles printed in the Channel Islands Chapter's newsletter, Matilija Copy, which are available online from the Current Activities page.

September 2002

The Ventura County Environmental Report Review Committee (ERRC) has held two hearings and reviewed verbal and written testimony and critiques of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (DSEIR) for Phase I of the previously (1992) approved Ahmanson Ranch development adjacent to Calabasas in easternmost Ventura County.   The DSEIR was supposed to address new concerns regarding impacts to rare species (San Fernando Valley Spineflower [SFVS] and California Red-legged Frog), wetland impacts, and traffic impacts.   Rincon Consultants of Ventura was hired by the County to prepare the EIR; however, Rincon was only to evaluate the impacts based on studies performed by the developer’s (Washington Mutual Bank) own consultants.

The ERRC decided that the DSEIR needed significantly more work to satisfy the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and to address the thousands of specific comments they received on the DSEIR.    Rincon’s budget was increased six-fold in a recommendation by Ventura County Planning Dept. staff to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.    It will likely take Rincon a few months to go through all the comments and prepare proper responses (as required by CEQA) and perform the additional analysis requested by the commenters, which included CNPS.    The County will then release a Final EIR, which will then need to be reviewed by CNPS and other interested individuals and groups.

CNPS’ primary concern with the Ahmanson project are the direct and indirect impacts to rare plants (including the San Fernando Valley Spineflower), wetlands, and native plant communities such as Coastal Sage Scrub, Coast Live Oak Woodland, and California Annual Grassland.    You can help by reviewing the FEIR when it comes out and telling the Ventura County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors about your concerns with the project.

October 2002

The Final EIR for the Ahmanson Ranch development project was released at the end of September.   A quick review of the EIR found that Ventura County and it's EIR consultant, Rincon Consultants, largely ignored CNPS's comments.   The Ventura County General Plan states that the County "shall consult" with CNPS on all discretionary projects that may impact native plants. Did they consult with CNPS?   No!   Did they consider CNPS's requests for evaluation of nonvascular plants and locally rare species?   No!

The ERRC originally scheduled a hearing on the FEIR on 9 October 2002, but extended it to 14 October 2002, Columbus Day, a federal holiday.   The concerned public should attend this hearing to let the ERRC hear your thoughts on this massive and destructive project.

December 2002

The Ventura County Planning Commission held two hearings on the SEIR in November 2002.   The Commission voted 3-2 to approve the SEIR and recommend that the Board of Supervisors certify the SEIR as adequate.   CNPS and many others submitted substantial comments, orally and in writing, describing the problems with the environmental document.   Surely, the project and the CEQA process are complex and confusing, compounded by the fact that information can be difficult to obtain (background or supporting reports prepared by Ahmanson Land Company’s consultants).   The issues that need to be addressed under the CEQA process are:   what are the resources that may be impacted, will the impacts be significant, and is the proposed mitigation feasible?   CNPS believes that the SEIR fails on all three accounts.   It failed to adequately describe the existing biological resources, it failed to adequately assess the project impacts on those resources, and it failed to provide feasible mitigation measures to reduce those impacts to less-than-significant levels.   The issues CNPS raised include the:
  • EIR’s failure to assess impacts on nonvascular plants;
  • EIR’s failure to assess impacts to species of local concern;
  • Inaccurate impact assessment to the San Fernando Valley Spineflower;
  • Inadequate preserve design for the San Fernando Valley Spineflower;
  • Misleading and inadequate plant community classification used;
  • Infeasibility of transplanting rare plants as mitigation;
  • Non-viability of the mitigation preserves proposed;
  • Inappropriateness of habitat preservation as mitigation for direct impacts;
  • County’s failure to consult with CNPS and the Audubon Society, as required under General Plan policy;
  • Failure to adequately consider impact to rare invertebrates;
  • Failure to use the most recent available information;
  • Failure to evaluate impacts to wetland functions; and
  • Project’s inconsistencies with the Ventura County General Plan goals and policies.
A copy of CNPS’s and David Magney Environmental Consulting’s (on contract to the City of Calabasas through LSA Associates (an environmental consulting firm headquartered in Richmond, CA) comment letters can be downloaded here (insert download link to CNPS letter here; insert download link to DMEC comment letter here).   The transcript (draft) for the first day of the Planning Commission hearing can be downloaded here (Planning Commision Comments), just remember, they are an unedited version, which contains numerous errors.

The first day of hearings on the SEIR for Ahmanson Ranch by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors was held on 10 December 2002.   Approximately 500 people attended the overflowing hearing room, consisting of both supporters and opponents.   Supervisor Flynn disclosed the President Bill Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, and others had called him expressing their concern about the impacts the project would have on the environment.   The issues are the same as heard by the Planning Commission.   What the Supervisors need to know is whether the SEIR adequately addresses the new environmental impacts not previously addressed in the original 1992 EIR.   As presented in earlier comments, CNPS does not believe so.

CNPS submitted a comment letter to the Board of Supervisors addressing a few of the key points, and will testify on the 17th.   Due to the large number of people wishing to testify, it is unlikely that the hearings will be completed on the 17th.   David Magney, representing CNPS, talked briefly on KCLU’s Cross Talk program the morning of 11 December 2002 about the inadequacy of the preserve design for the San Fernando Valley Spineflower.

Ventura County OKs Ahmanson Study, Giving Builder the Go-ahead to Seek Permits
By Massie Ritsch, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer – 20 December 2002

The developer of Ahmanson Ranch secured a crucial but mixed blessing Thursday from Ventura County supervisors, who agreed the proposed community abutting Los Angeles County admirably balances the region's housing needs and environmental concerns.   The board's 4-1 vote gave owner Washington Mutual Bank the green light to seek the state and federal permits required before construction.   But waiting at those agencies and in court will most likely be a persistent coalition of environmentalists, celebrities and neighboring cities opposed to the project.   "We always hope there won't be litigation, but that might be a false hope here," said Steve Weston, the developer's chief attorney.

Indeed, almost immediately after the Board of Supervisors voted to certify a second environmental study of the 3,050-home project, officials in Calabasas and the city and county of Los Angeles said they will probably file legal challenges next month to overturn the supervisors' decision.   Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said he remains concerned the project would degrade the surrounding environment.  The project's neighbors contend the updated study is flawed because it did not update 10-year-old traffic studies or fully consider the recent discovery of a contaminated well near the property.   Ventura County "has clearly shown blatant disregard for its neighbors and their best interests," Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine said.   "This project is a disaster in the making".

Ahmanson Ranch's critics say they would prefer to meet the developer at the negotiating table, not in a courtroom, to craft a deal preserving the ranchland as a park.   "We believe that it is not only in the best interest of the public but in the best business interest of Washington Mutual Bank to sell this land to a conservancy at a fair price," said Chad Griffin, campaign manager for Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch.

Thursday's vote maintains, if not boosts, the enormous value of the ranch's 2,800 undeveloped acres.  Estimates range from $100 million to $500 million, but Washington Mutual insists it has no intention of selling.   "Our plans are the same as they always have been," Weston said.  The proposal to develop Ahmanson Ranch was first approved in 1992 by a different group of Ventura County supervisors.   As part of the deal, the National Park Service and the state Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy became owners of 10,000 acres of Ahmanson and adjacent ranches, preserving the grassy hills and oak savanna overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

That did not satisfy open-space activists, who have unsuccessfully challenged the project in court and before government boards ever since.  Their cause got a lift in recent years from film director Rob Reiner and friends, who have bankrolled the campaign and enlisted state legislators, members of Congress and even Bill Clinton and Al Gore to oppose the $2-billion development.

Ventura County Supervisor Judy Mikels said Thursday the "very slick" campaign failed to change her mind on Washington Mutual's "exceedingly good project."  "I'm very disconcerted by outside officials getting into local issues," she said. "They'll get their chance."

Before it can build its community, Washington Mutual must secure permits from the state Department of Fish and Game, state Regional Water Quality Control Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  To varying degrees, all of those stops are potential roadblocks.

The environmental study Ventura County supervisors evaluated Thursday was a supplement to the original 1992 analysis.  It was primarily a plan for protecting the endangered red-legged frog and San Fernando Valley spineflower, which were discovered on the property three years ago.  But the development's opponents used the public hearing to reexamine traffic projections and other effects.   They also asked supervisors to order a study of perchlorate, a cancer-causing component of rocket fuel, that was detected in July in a well proposed for irrigating the development's two golf courses. The opponents cited bygone rocket-testing at Boeing's Santa Susana Field Laboratory as the likely source of the contaminant. Scientists at the lab dispute that argument.

After a three-day parade of experts hired by opponents and the developer, supervisors expressed concern over perchlorate contamination in California but doubted the chemical poses any danger to the Ahmanson project.  Just destroy the well, the supervisors told the developer, and find another way to water the project's golf courses and don't tap any nearby wells if they are contaminated.   Opponent Griffin said the supervisors had ignored an opportunity to protect the public from perchlorate.   "They chose to pass the buck" to state and federal agencies, he said.

The supervisors' decision followed 16 hours of testimony.  So voluminous were the documents that Supervisor Frank Schillo could barely be seen over boxes of paper as he explained his support for the development.   Schillo is leaving office in 17 days, and Ahmanson's opponents had hoped to delay the supervisors' vote until the inauguration of his successor, slow-growth ally Linda Parks.   As it turned out, the 4-1 vote suggested the delay would not have helped the opposition.   Board Chairman John Flynn and Supervisor Kathy Long joined Schillo and Mikels in certifying the environmental study and a tract map of the development's first phase.   The lone dissenter, Steve Bennett, said he wanted to see an updated traffic study.   Traffic has not been measured since the 1992 analysis, and Washington Mutual maintains the projections are close enough to today's reality.

In an unusual move Thursday, the supervisors added to their approval a requirement that the developer "consider" ways to assist Ventura County in creating affordable housing for its many farm workers.  "We need your help," said Flynn, who proposed the requirement.

-- END OF L.A. Times Article --

January 2003

The Ventura County ERRC held a hearing on the Final Supplemental EIR (FSEIR) on the Ahmanson Ranch (Phase 1) development project in October 2002.   The ERRC found the FSEIR adequate and forwarded it for certification to the Ventura County Planning Commission.    The Planning Commission held two days of hearings on the EIR in mid-November, voting 3-2 to recommend certification and approval to the Board of Supervisors; the Board of Supervisors approved the project 4-1 after hearing testimony over 3 days.    Only Supervisor Bennett (District 1) voted against certification.

CNPS provided written comments at the ERRC, Planning Commission, and Board hearings, expressing great concern over the inadequate descriptions of the existing conditions and impact assessments, and lack of feasible mitigation measures.    Unfortunately, almost all CNPS’s comments were ignored, with only minor or unsatisfactory comments provided.   It did not appear that the ERRC, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors were at all concerned with the significant issues raised by CNPS.

It is vitally important that all CNPS members tell your Supervisor how you feel about their decision on the Ahmanson Ranch development project, both over concerns about the lack of adequate identification of existing biological resources and the inadequate review of project-related impacts to these resources.    Furthermore, the mitigation measures proposed are inadequate or will fail because of poor or flawed design.    CNPS is now considering filing a CEQA lawsuit on the EIR, which must be filed by mid-January.

June 2003

CNPS and several other environmental organizations’ lawsuit against the County of Ventura and Ahmanson Land Company/Washington Mutual Bank are in the record-gathering stage, which will take months. 

Four comment letters on the FSEIR can be downloaded here:

December 2003

Ahmanson Ranch Sold to Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy purchased the Ahmanson Ranch from Washington Mutual for $150 Million.   Ahmanson Ranch was offically opened to the public in December 2003, and will be preserved in pertetuity.   What a VICTORY for the environment!   And Washington Mutual made a bundle of money too.   The leadership of Washington Mutual finally figured out that the bad publicity of their dogged, led by Ahmanson Ranch Company's Vice President Guy Gnydeck, was not in the best interest of Washington Mutual shareholders, fired him, and agreed to sell to the state.

Please go visit your new open space area.

More Information

Links to other websites featuring the Ahmanson Ranch:

Special thanks to Carlin Moyer for the beautiful illustrations on our site.

Last updated: 14 February 2007
For website comments: webmaster(at)cnpsci(dot)org