VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. - Standing on the edge of the Ahmanson Ranch and looking east, all Lenora Kirby can see is the neatly laid concrete landscape of Los Angeles County's West Valley. Townhouses and the occasional cluster of high-rise office buildings sit on a grid of wide boulevards. The widest, Victory Boulevard, runs right to the Ahmanson fence and stops abruptly, along with the last line of houses, like some uniform high-tide mark.
Behind Kirby, in Ventura County, the brown, oak-dotted hills of the 3,000-acre ranch roll empty and wild to the Santa Monica Mountains. Southward, the mountains drain into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, whose beaches and canyons are visited by up to 50 million people a year.
On this very mesa in 1991, Kirby, then a Ventura County supervisor assistant, joined representatives of both ranch owner Home Savings and area landowner Bob Hope to discuss a deal that could dramatically change Ahmanson's hills. Ventura County would allow a sizable new town on the ranch if Home Savings and Hope agreed to set aside nearly 10,000 other acres as public open space. Kirby and some of her colleagues thought they had a landmark deal: Sacrifice a relatively small acreage in order to protect a larger ecosystem.
"I looked out there and thought about the 1,300 oaks that might potentially die (if Ahmanson was developed)," says Kirby. "Then I thought it's sort of like going to war: How many are you going to save by losing some?"
Although the deal was approved in 1992 and the public now owns the open space, not one square foot of the ranch has been graded for the new town. Twelve lawsuits, the transfer of Ahmanson's ownership, and the discovery of endangered species on the property have stalled the project. While the developers work to get things back on track, environmentalists in Los Angeles and beyond wrangle over whether to accept and mitigate sprawl, or beat it back from the ranch's edge.
Two visions of the view
"This project doesn't serve the social good," says Susan Little, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who opposes the project. "We have less open space per capita than any other big city in the country. We need to start using the urban spaces we have in Los Angeles, instead of pushing out and building a donut."
A dozen environmental and citizen groups opposed to the Ahmanson development, including the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation, have garnered the support of Sherman, a handful of state officials and the mayors of four towns that ring the development.
Collectively, they're alarmed by projections that Ahmanson's 3,050 new homes, 10,000 new people and new commercial center would put 37,000 cars in their backyard and onto the already-jammed 101 freeway.
Critics also say the 41 million cubic yards of dirt Ahmanson's developers will be moving is bound to choke East Las Virgenes Creek, which runs through the center of one of the proposed golf courses and is home to the endangered California red-legged frog.
"The impacts of the development are unacceptable," says Dave Brown, who headed a Sierra Club study of the project which advised against it. "This (growth) may be inevitable, but the ranch is still viable wilderness."
But Ahmanson developer and architect Guy Gniadek's significant mitigation measures have made the project palatable to at least some environmentalists. He's blueprinted water-quality monitoring to watch East Las Virgenes Creek when construction begins. As part of the original agreement, the developers also would fund the nonprofit Las Virgenes Institute to manage the ranch's natural resources - among them the red-legged frog, a rare flower recently found on the ranch and the 500 acres of open space that will remain after buildout. The institute is now up and running under Kirby, who has already planted 8,000 new oak seedlings to offset future tree loss.
The project's mitigation has drawn the attention of environmentalists in other sprawling Western cities.
"When you add the open space dedicated to the public, it's an amazing package," says Luther Propst, executive director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Sonoran Institute.
Propst also supports Gniadek's innovative layout: clustered development, single-room occupancy units and a transportation plan that encourages residents to walk, bike or take an electric bus for local trips. The plan has won Ahmanson much praise by planners across the country, and Gniadek and his supporters believe it will help Los Angeles turn the corner towards smarter growth.
"It's a good working example for Southern California," says Gniadek. "People are just adverse to growth and they refuse to differentiate between this project and others."
Currently, Gniadek is updating the 1992 environmental impact statement to include the recent discoveries of the red-legged frog, and of the San Fernando Valley spineflower, for 60 years believed to be extinct. While critics say this is one more reason the ranch should stay protected, Gniadek says, "we can incorporate the species into the project." He is confident that the update will be done by the end of this summer, that Ventura County will approve the final plan, and that construction will begin sometime in 2002.
A model for the West?
Bill Fulton, one of the country's leading commentators on urban growth and author of Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles, believes the location of Ahmanson near commercial centers and next to housing tracts makes it a responsible spot for growth. Fulton adds that residents on the urban fringe in L.A. and other Western cities that are growing need to get used to sprawl.
"The future of the West is in cities that are growing," says Fulton.
Hal Rothman, a professor of history at University of Nevada-Las Vegas who studies urban growth, agrees with Fulton that some growth is inevitable. But he cautions that Ahmanson's "green" development may not be as golden as it appears.
The cost of lawsuits and environmental impact studies are generally swallowed by home buyers, says Rothman, essentially ruling out any affordable housing.
"I love the idea of green development, but nobody's done it successfully yet," says Rothman. "The trick is to do something that's environmentally sound and doesn't raise the price of homes too much."
The writer is a former HCN intern who now works for the Saratoga News in California's Silicon Valley.
You can contact ...
- Lenora Kirby, Las Virgines Institute, 818/991-3663;
- Dave Brown, Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, the Sierra Club, 818/889-0356;
- Guy Gniadek, vice president/project manager, Ahmanson Land Company, 818/880-4325.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Oakley Brooks