Tuesday saw a sharp escalation in the 5-year fight between developers seeking to build the largest mixed-use development in Los Angeles history, and the environmentalists seeking to block it. Eleven days after Los Angeles federal District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew ordered a halt to construction, executives at Playa Capital Co. ordered bulldozers to roll. It’s a high-risk manuever that critics say could lead to contempt-of-court charges.

On June 26, Judge Lew ruled in favor of three environmental groups — Wetlands Action Network, the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust and CALPIRG (California Public Interest Research Group) — that had sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for allowing the project to go forward. The Corps, said Lew, had been “arbitrary, capricious, and otherwise not in accordance with the law” when it issued permits to developer Maguire Thomas Partners for dredging and filling wetlands on the 1,087-acre property. “The permit is therefore rescinded,” wrote Lew, “and all construction activities on the permitted area shall cease unless the Corps complies with its NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] obligations.”

Shocked by the decision, Playa Capital has asked Judge Lew to withdraw his injunction prohibiting construction and reconsider his whole judgment. The developer protests that “an injunction now could cost tens of millions of dollars, throw dozens of people out of work, and cripple Playa Capital.” Moreover, failure to build Playa Vista immediately “would lead to significant environmental degradation, with dust storms and mudflows as denuded ground remains unstabilized.”

At the same time, Playa Capital, which bought out developer Robert Maguire in 1997 and has been negotiating with SKG DreamWorks to build its new film studio at Playa Vista, has issued press releases contending that Lew’s ruling only pertains to 16 acres of “pocket” wetlands, not the entire project. Those 16 acres were roped off Tuesday, while grading work commenced on 100 other acres nearby.

At the time Judge Lew issued his ruling, opponents were elated at having won their first legal victory in a long series of state and federal suits dating back to the early 1990s. “This is an incredible reprieve for the wetlands,” said Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Wetlands Action Network. “It’s a demonstration that the often-heard developers’ myth that it’s a done deal is one we can choose to believe or not. Citizens can make a difference and stand up for something.”

But now, faced with Playa Capital’s narrow interpretation of the court order and resumption of bulldozing, the environmental plaintiffs are gearing up for yet another high-stakes court battle. Lawyers for the three groups are requesting that Judge Lew issue an emergency order of the court to stop construction on the entire property. “We obviously think they’re in violation of the court’s intention and order,” says Hanscom.

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