Opponents of the planned 3,000-home development known as Ahmanson Ranch claim that the hiring of former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as a consultant for the controversial project is an effort by the developers to deflect criticism.
Ahmanson representatives, however, say Babbitt brings with him eight years of experience in environmental affairs that can be used in clearing the way for a project that has local residents and government officials fighting an out-of-state bank.
Babbitt, who served in the Clinton administration, joined the Los Angeles-based law firm of Latham & Watkins in January. The firm represents Seattle-based Washington Mutual Inc., which owns Ahmanson Land Co., developer of the proposed project on Ventura County’s eastern border with Los Angeles County.
Ahmanson spokesman Tim McGarry says Babbitt will serve as a liaison between Ahmanson developers and environmental groups, including those who have waged a campaign against the project since it was approved by Ventura County officials in 1992.
“We hope that Mr. Babbitt will help us communicate the facts of the project to these groups accurately and encourage them to have an accurate understanding of what the project is all about,” said McGarry. Babbitt did not return calls for comment.
McGarry added that Ahamanson officials hope to draw upon Babbitt’s experience to present its project in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
But opponents say that Babbitt’s hiring indicates they are gaining ground. “They are getting so desperate that they have to go out and hire a person like Bruce Babbitt to do their dirty work for them,” said Joe Behar, a Woodland Hills resident and president of the West Valley Community Coalition, a coalition of local homeowners groups formed four years ago.
McGarry said Babbitt’s appointment should be viewed as an effort by Ahmanson and Washington Mutual to cool the overheated rhetoric on the project, not inflame it.
“Clearly there has been a determined effort to castigate Mr. Babbitt for taking on this role and to portray it in very unfair terms,” said McGarry. “It’s certainly ironic that we’ve taken the step of enlisting someone to essentially serve as an ambassador to the environmental community and that the reaction is so negative.”
Washington Mutual was forced earlier this year to submit an updated environmental review on the project because of the increase since 1992 of projected traffic through the 101 corridor. It’s estimated that the project would place an additional 45,000 cars on the 101 Freeway each day, most flowing south toward downtown Los Angeles.
The project area includes roughly 2,800 square feet of rolling hills that is also home to the San Fernando Valley spineflower and the California red-legged frog both said to be near extinction.
Groups like Behar’s and Save Open Spaces Santa Monica Mountains (SOS) have tried convincing Washington Mutual to sell the land off as park space. As part of their effort to block construction of the project, which includes plans for a golf course, country club and 300-room hotel, they have been hoping to get federal approval to place the frog and the flower on the federal government’s endangered species list.