Bank Takes Flak for Massive Golf Project

Upon acquiring Ahmanson Bank in 1998, Washington Mutual (Wamu) had no idea it would be thrust in the middle of a decade-old controversy. When it purchased the Southern California-based institution, Seattle-based Wamu, the nation’s largest savings and loan association, inherited the dream project of Howard Ahmanson, who envisioned a utopian community on 3,000 acres of untouched wilderness north of Los Angeles in Ventura County. But environmental activists, who’ve long decried the project in the Santa Monica Mountains as unwanted urban blight, have sustained their steam and redirected their public wrath at Wamu in a variety of high-profile ways.

Plans for Ahmanson Ranch include two 18-hole golf courses, 3,050 homes, 400,000-square-feet of commercial space, a resort hotel and two schools. As part of a development agreement, Wamu will donate 7,341 acres of the ranch to Ventura County for a new regional park. Upon final approval of the project, the county Park District and Wamu will build recreational facilities, including community and neighborhood parks, athletic fields, tennis courts, a swimming pool and community center, all of which will be accessed through a common trail system.

Among the group mustered to fight Ahmanson Ranch are some big Hollywood stars. Opponents have enlisted director Rob Reiner, actor Martin Sheen and Erin Brockovich, a budding talk show host whose crusade against toxic dumping in Hinkley, Calif., was protrayed on film by Julia Roberts, who won an Oscar for the eponymous role. In April 2002, the activists attended Wamu’s annual meeting in Seattle and distributed leaflets that asked why the company was “in the business of destroying 3,000 acres of untouched wilderness.” The Southern Californians are trying to turn the tables on a corporation based in the Northwest, a region known for its pristine forests, watery expanses, towering mountain ranges and outdoorsy sensibilities.

Wamu has countered by hiring Bruce Babbitt. While a member of the Clinton cabinet, the former U.S. Interior secretary embraced environmental causes and was widely applauded by eco-friendly citizens for his protectionist programs. As a Wamu spokesman, though, Babbitt has called the $2-billion Ahmanson Ranch a model project, one that will set aside five acres of parkland for every acre of development. The project will also protect the habitat of endangered species, while creating Tuscan-style villages for a region that needs housing for a half-million people over the next 20 years.

In comments made to Timothy Egan of the New York Times on May 13, 2002, Babbitt said, “You don’t see me hanging around too many of these kinds of projects.” Babbitt, who now works for the Washington, D.C., law firm of Latham & Watkins, added, “I’m doing this one because I came to the conclusion that this is a kind of model development we ought to promote.”

Environmental activists respond to Babbitt’s support of the project by saying he’s sold out. “Bruce Babbitt still sees green,” said Chad Griffin, the campaign manager of Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch. “It’s just a different shade of green than he saw as Interior secretary.” Babbitt answers by saying the celebrity-opponents only want to protect their million-dollar homes on property next to the ranch.

Sheen has been featured on radio ads in Los Angeles, where he asks, “Are you stuck in traffic now? If not, you’d better enjoy this rare moment, because it’s only going to get worse, thanks to Washington Mutual.” The opponents have funded full-page ads showing a landmark waterfall east of Seattle, with the comments, “Would the people of Seattle support a 3,000-acre development like this at Snoqualmie Falls?” (Actually they did, with the 2,000-acre TPC at Snoqualmie project – which includes a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, over 2,000 homes and commercial areas. Work began on the project – about a mile south of the falls as the crow flies – in the late-1990s, and the private TPC course has been open for a couple of years.)

Bill Ehrlich, executive vice president for corporate relations at Wamu, drolly said of this negative PR campaign: “The effect has been underwhelming. It’s just not resonating beyond the immediate reach of the area.”

The plans for the former sheep and cattle ranch north of U.S. 101 have been stymied for years by more than a dozen lawsuits. Complicating matters was the 1999 discovery of a dime-sized white flower, once thought to be extinct, and a colony of endangered red-legged frogs. Wamu says it’s come up with a plan to protect the habitats of the flower and frog, but opponents allege the 10-year-old plan is obsolete and doesn’t consider the amount of traffic that 10,000 new inhabitants would generate in the area. The nearby town of Calabasas, which has spent $1.4 million fighting the project over the past 10 years, is also against it because of increased traffic through the city and along Highway 101.

The project was approved by Ventura County in 1992, before strict land-use regulations were imposed for one of the last remaining open spaces of the state. The area still has orange groves and native oak trees. The new laws make it virtually impossible for a company to proceed with a large development such as Ahmanson Ranch. Before final approvals are given, Wamu must still get approval from Ventura County for a supplemental environmental impact statement; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must issue a stream-alteration permit; and an appeal to a key tree-cutting permit must be resolved by the county planning commission – and perhaps by the California justice system.

Thanks to some well-known opponents who don’t mind expressing their views through expensive publicity campaigns, it looks like the laborious process of Ahmanson Ranch coming to fruition will continue for awhile.