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April 17, 2002
Activists Lobby Shareowners to Stop Housing Development in Southern California
    by Mark Thomsen

A coalition group held a rally at Washington Mutual's annual meeting to raise concern about that company's planned housing development in the Santa Monica Mountains.


Stockholders going to Washington Mutual's April 16 annual meeting in Seattle had to pass approximately 40 protesters who oppose the company's plans to build a housing development near Los Angeles. Washington Mutual (ticker: WMU), the nation's largest savings and loan, is looking to build a luxury housing complex on Ahmanson Ranch, a 2,800 tract of undisturbed open space in Ventura County. A coalition of politicians, environmentalists, and celebrities called Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch are trying to stop the development because of environmental and traffic congestion concerns.

"We are here today to ask Washington Mutual and their shareholders to help us protect one of Southern California's last remaining environmental treasures" the Ahmanson Ranch,"; said actor/director Rob Reiner, a co-chair of Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch. "Washington Mutual Bank is normally a pretty good corporate citizen and member of this community. But right now they have themselves mixed up in a bad situation you might normally associate with a big corporate polluter or developer."

Preceding the annual meeting, Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch held an informational session for shareowners to express specific environmental and economic concerns with the project.

The 3,050 luxury home development is to include two golf courses and 400,000 feet of shopping and office space. Located at the headwaters of Malibu Creek, coalition members say the development would muddy the creek and pollute distant Surfrider Beach and Santa Monica Bay. The recent discoveries of a rare flower, the San Fernando Valley spineflower, and a rare frog, the California red-legged frog, on the ranch have increased support for opposition to the development.

Washington Mutual has been generally well-liked by social investors. As a financial services firm, it has had fewer troubles on the environmental front than most manufacturing companies. The thrift has received recognition for being a good employer for minorities and women, and with $243 billion in assets, it is a stable large-cap holding. It can be found in the Calvert Social Index, the Domini 400 Social Index, and Light Green Advisor's Eco* Index.

Washington Mutual inherited the Ahmanson Ranch project in 1998 when it purchased AF Ahmanson & Co., the parent company of a Los Angeles thrift. Washington Mutual hopes to break ground for the $2 billion development in 2003.

Late last year California-based Harrington Investments, Inc., a socially responsible asset manager, filed a shareowner resolution with Washington Mutual about the project. The resolution asked the Board of Directors to issue a report that, among other things, identifies all costs related to the social and environmental impacts of the company's land development projects. Washington Mutual asked the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) for permission to omit the resolution from its proxy because the resolution dealt with the company's ordinary business. The SEC sided with Washington Mutual and the resolution was omitted.

Washington Mutual seems committed to seeing the development built. It has begun a lobbying campaign with the California state government and has hired former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt fend off environmental critics. Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch says it will continue efforts to inform the public about the negative impacts of the development.

 

 
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