TORRANCE — No more residential construction at the Park Del Amo project will be allowed until a dispute with developers over ownership of the Madrona Marsh is resolved.
The City Council came to that decision last week after City Atty. Stanley Remelmeyer reversed his earlier opinion and told the council that the marsh dispute could be considered in deciding on housing proposals for the project.
"We were stunned when he suddenly said the issues could be coupled," said Jerry Rogers, a spokesman for the Torrance Investment Co., the major developer of the project and the city's opponent in the dispute over the marsh. "This has created big problems for everybody."
During the seven-hour meeting that ended at 2 a.m. on Saturday, the City Council rejected two proposals, one for a 132-unit apartment complex for the elderly planned by Watt Homes Inc. and the other a 416-unit condominium project to be built by Lincoln Property Co. Two other projects proposed by Watt were given initial approval, but the council said that building permits for those projects will not be issued until the marsh dispute is settled.
A attorney for Lincoln said the decision to consider the marsh dispute--in which Lincoln is not involved--has made his company feel helpless and persecuted.
"We don't have the legal capacity to solve their legal problems," said attorney Douglas Ring. "We are being punished for something we cannot control."
Remelmeyer said he reversed his opinion because of a lawsuit filed against the city by Torrance Investment earlier this year. The suit seeks to invalidate the part of a 1983 agreement that set aside nearly 43 acres of the marsh in exchange for approval of the Torrance Investment plan to build 1,485 residential units and 850,000 square feet of office space on a 140-acre parcel next to the marsh.
"If the marsh dedication provision is invalid, then the provision to permit them to build should also be invalid," said Remelmeyer. "We want the courts to make a determination on the marsh before we issue building permits."
Remelmeyer said he expects the developers to sue the city over the two rejected projects, but he said that the city is prepared to go to court to get possession of the marsh.
Spokesmen for the developers would not say whether they intend to file suit. However, Ring said, his company is "not prepared to walk away" from the project.
The city and developers had agreed to the unusual Friday night meeting in an effort to get decisions on the projects by June 30. Developers had loan commitments that expired on that date.
In rejecting the two projects, council members said the proposed $600-a-month rent for the apartments for the elderly was too high and that a proposed underground parking lot for the Lincoln project could pose crime problems. Council members also said that they feared that the condominiums might be rented out, which nearby residents said they oppose.
The two projects conditionally approved are a 422-unit condominium complex and one for 146 detached town houses. The developer of those projects, Ray Watt, had been a partner in the Torrance Investment Co., but agreed to pull out of the partnership last summer to develop the residential portion of Park Del Amo. In that agreement, Torrance Investment would develop only the commercial portion of the project. However, the agreement is contingent upon city approval of Watt's residential projects.
The Friends of Madrona Marsh, a community group that had fought for 10 years to preserve the marsh as one of the South Bay's last remaining stopping grounds for migratory birds, applauded the council's decision.
"We are all very pleased with the outcome," said Ken Gaugh, vice president of the group, who added that he did not expect Remelmeyer to change his position on connecting the marsh dispute with the projects.
Gaugh said his group did not oppose the two Watt projects that were approved, but was against approving the two other projects.
Mayor Katy Geissert said the council had little choice but to connect the marsh dispute with the proposed projects.
"It was a no-win situation," Geissert said. "If we had approved all the projects without the conditions, we may never have gotten title to the marsh. If we denied them all, we could be sued for delaying the project. This way we still have a chance at getting the marsh."