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Bad Gas 

Is city playing fast and loose with potential Playa disaster?

Wednesday, Jul 19 2006
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ONLY ONE COUNCILMEMBER, it seems, is concerned that the city’s coziness with Playa Vista developers could be setting the stage for a potential disaster.

The lone voice last January in calling for stronger environmental review at the $7 billion, 1,100-acre development, Councilman Bill Rosendahl lashed out at his colleagues. “Many of them have been around this large conglomerate that is creating Playa Vista, and they have historical relationships with [the developer] and some of the lobbyists involved with the project,” he told reporters.

Rosendahl’s frustration stemmed from concerns about whether dewatering at the Playa site, built on the Ballona Aquifer, could release deadly methane gas into the soil, and endanger residents. When the council passed a narrower study pushed by developers working with the City Attorney’s Office, he said, “I am saddened that the council did not support a thorough, transparent public process to examine this crucial public-safety issue.”

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Last Friday, a group of Playa activists asked a Los Angeles judge to hold the city in contempt for failing to ensure Playa Vista’s methane-gas-safety measures are up to snuff. They charge that the Department of Building and Safety approved the methane-safety system in spite of the possibility that deadly gas could leak into the 3,246 homes, apartments and condominiums in the first phase of the development, where 4,000 people live. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Wu will decide on August 29 if the city has violated his February order and a state Court of Appeals ruling requiring environmental testing in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Upscale and trendy Playa Vista is the first major residential development on the Westside in nearly 50 years. The activists calling for judicial intervention, none of whom live in the complex, claim the city has caved in to lobbying pressure and crafted a devious end run around CEQA. Playa Capital LLC and the City Attorney’s Office insist they have complied with the law. Opponents hope that scientific evidence will emerge at public hearings in August that will force Rosendahl’s colleagues to revisit murky City Council actions that Playa foes are challenging.

Playa foes charge that the building department, on the advice of the City Attorney’s Office, violated two court orders and CEQA when it revoked and then reissued 26 permits for the methane-detection and prevention system and issued thousands of occupancy certificates on the first phase of development. In 2005, the state Court of Appeals instructed Judge Wu to order the city to revoke the methane permits until it complied with CEQA and conducted either a separate or supplemental environmental review. Despite that ruling, the council went ahead on January 11 and authorized “peer review and assessment” of reports from two ground-water-management firms to ensure that dewatering processes on the site would not result in the release of poisonous gas. The council’s motion called for the firms to review materials received from the public and other agencies. Rosendahl complained that this was insufficient oversight under CEQA guidelines.

Richard Fine, attorney for the Playa opponents, agreed, saying the council’s motion was “a devious motion that doesn’t comply with CEQA, which requires public comment and response before the city issues methane-system permits.” In February, Judge Wu ordered the city to revoke permits and comply with CEQA.

Then the City Attorney’s Office took over. A March 17 letter to the council from Assistant City Attorney Peter Gutierrez instructs the members, in light of Wu’s order, to pass a motion that requires the city to revoke the methane permits for purposes of determining whether a separate or supplemental environmental report is required. However, Gutierrez advised them not to mention CEQA, even though the Court of Appeals and Wu ordered the city to “proceed accordingly as required by CEQA.” Rosendahl sponsored the new motion along with Councilman Ed Reyes, and it passed on March 31.

Just last week, with the methane permits already reissued, the city’s chief legislative analyst posted a notice of public hearing along with summary reports from the Bureau of Engineering and ground-water experts hired to work with the City Attorney’s Office. Attached to their motion for contempt of court last Friday, Playa foes included a stack of property reports that show the building department reissuing permits before public hearings have been held.

Sources at City Hall say the August 15 public hearing on Playa’s environmental status, and another one to be scheduled, could pressure the council to revisit the issue. Rosendahl is out of the country and unavailable for comment. Reached on his cell phone Monday, Reyes could not say whether the city has complied with CEQA, or even the intent of the motion he seconded on March 31.

SO IS IT TOO LATE? Judge Wu may now be the Playa foes’ last chance to stop what they claim is a potential environmental disaster. In addition to the shifty manner in which the City Attorney’s Office — working closely with Playa’s lawyers from Latham & Watkins — steered the matter through City Council, a review of the money spent lobbying for Playa suggests that the entire political and business establishment is determined to move on.

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