Dedication of Parkland Honors Those Who Fought Ahmanson Ranch Project

Officials give credit for a new park on former Ahmanson Ranch Land to activists who spent years fighting the 3,050-home project.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2004.

Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

In the late 1980s, Mary Wiesbrock took up a new cause: She wanted to stop a plan that would have plopped 3,050 new homes on Ahmanson Ranch in the Simi Hills.Wiesbrock lived in the area and had previously railed against billboards she thought were cluttering up hillsides. She believed the development was a horrendous idea that would only bring more traffic, pollution and sprawl.

So, she fought it. And won.

The home project was halted last year when the state purchased the land from Washington Mutual for $150 million. Instead of becoming homes and golf courses, the 2,983-acre tract will remain open space and connect to other parks in the area.

On Saturday, Wiesbrock, 57, was honored during a ceremony to dedicate the park. She also was presented with a sign for a trail that has been named after her.

“My family put up with this for 15 years. My little girl was 5; now she’s 20,” Wiesbrock told several hundred people. “This shows the power of the people,” she said later. “As time went by more and more people jumped aboard.”

Dozens of politicians and public officials were on hand for the dedication, standing on an old helicopter landing pad that overlooks the rolling grasslands and oak-studded hills of the park.

Most of the officials said that credit for the park should go to those who bitterly fought the housing plan.

“You have created the largest-ever purchase of parkland in the Los Angeles-Ventura County region,” said Mike Chrisman, secretary of the state Resources Agency. “It’s something to be proud of.”

The park has been open since Nov. 7, when escrow closed on the deal.

Since the mid-1990s, the Seattle-based bank had repeatedly vowed to build the homes, leading to a see-saw conflict that seemed to get nastier as each year passed.

Joe Behar, 41, president of the West Valley Community Coalition, said he became involved in the fight against the development by accident. “I was getting my truck repaired one day and I read a story in the newspaper about it,” he said.

Behar, a postal worker from Woodland Hills, said he almost immediately became irate. He envisioned the streets of his neighborhood becoming clogged beyond capacity with traffic because of the new homes.

So he did something about it.

His group came up with a three-pronged plan: Inform the community about the project; take business away from Washington Mutual through boycotts of its banks, and elect people to local and state offices who sympathized with their position.

The coup, he said, occurred when his group built a website and registered the domain name www.ahmanson.org, which allowed the group to instantaneously provide updates for anyone interested in the cause.

“I gave up my life for eight years,” Behar said. “I was bringing my laptop on vacations so I could answer e-mails.”

The park will be known as the Upper Las Virgenes Open Space Preserve, because the state agreed to drop the Ahmanson Ranch name as part of the sales agreement. No Washington Mutual officials attended the ceremony, although many speakers thanked the company for making the deal.

Biologists have long argued that the land in the Simi Hills serves as a critical wildlife corridor between open space in the Santa Monica Mountains to the south and the Santa Susanas to the north. Without the corridor, they have said, species, such as mountain lions and badgers, might vanish.

Mark Burley, 53, produced radio ads railing against the Ahmanson Ranch project. “Originally, I was totally pessimistic about Ahmanson Ranch,” he said. “But about four or five years ago I started getting optimistic that it would happen.”

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