By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But the injunction Lew issued stopped construction only on 16.1 acres reserved for the storm-water treatment system, not the entire project. Consequently the plaintiffs have asked the appeals court to broaden the injunction to stop all construction while a full-scale EIS is prepared. Their attorney, Steve Crandall, argues that "If these construction activities are allowed to continue while an EIS is being prepared, then the remaining wetlands will become hopelessly fragmented, isolated and destroyed, the remaining project alternatives will be eliminated, and the entire NEPA process [federal environmental review] will be rendered meaningless since the massive project will be built before the required analysis is done."
A full EIS for Playa Vista could take two years to complete — the sort of delay that could scramble financing for the development. In addition, a full EIS might find additional wetlands. The project would then have to protect them, or to create new wetlands nearby as mitigation.
If the appeals court chooses a middle course, upholding Lew’s ruling on storm-water treatment without halting construction on the whole project, then, as Crandall predicts, conducting an EIS seems unlikely to bring any significant change in Playa Vista. Still, revocation of the dredge-and-fill permits could strengthen the claims pending in state court. State verdicts requiring Playa Capital and DreamWorks to restore Ballona while reapplying for state and federal permits to develop the property might destabilize the project.
Playa Vista’s developers say they’re ready to handle whatever rulings might issue from state court. "In the unlikely event that any of their current lawsuits succeed," said David Herbst, vice president of Playa Capital, "we have contingency plans ready for submission to the city of Los Angeles that will allow Playa Vista to proceed." Herbst was referring to a new "covenant agreement" between the city and Playa Capital. Gordon Hamilton, deputy director of planning for Los Angeles, calls the covenant "a contingency protection plan that would allow the city to go in and design and build a new storm-water system." It would be financed by proposed Mello-Roos bonds for Playa Vista (project-backed tax-exempt bonds which will be used to build the infrastructure for the development).
Crandall doubts that, if upheld in the courts, the Ballona lawsuits can be so readily outflanked. "I don’t know if that covenant is legally valid," says Crandall. "There’s a million questions you can ask, and they are all legitimate fodder for a lawsuit."
New delays and new studies would also open the door to new political opposition — especially from the Santa Monica City Council, where the election of Richard Bloom this spring gave opponents of Playa Vista a solid majority. Already the council has asked the city attorney to re-examine a previous agreement in which Santa Monica accepted $1.2 million from the developers as mitigation for increased traffic from Phase I. City officials are also researching legal options in opposing Phase II development west of Lincoln Boulevard. "We have asked our staff to challenge Los Angeles on regional loss of open space," says Councilman Mike Feinstein.
For years, the activists opposed to Ballona relied on the courts as their last defense against unfettered development. But the new tone on the Santa Monica council, and the crowd at the Marina last week, suggest a dramatic shift in public concern. This summer's court rulings could stymie large-scale development at Ballona, but with public opposition growing, legal victories for Playa Vista could now represent the project's last, best chance to move forward.