In a bid to stop a huge office complex at Santa Monica Airport, opponents are claiming decades-old records show that the land can't be used for anything but a park unless the city's voters say so.
Santa Monica officials immediately labeled the claims as bogus. They said debate over what the land can be used for is a dead issue, resolved many years ago.
The dispute is the latest controversy over the $280-million complex proposed for 37 acres of city-owned land south of the airport and bordering several Los Angeles residential neighborhoods. City officials say the project will produce millions of dollars in much-needed income for Santa Monica.
Until now, most of the demands from Santa Monica and Los Angeles homeowner groups who oppose the project have centered on reducing its size and accommodating its traffic.
Vote on Issue
But in the latest attack, opponents are suggesting that almost any construction on the land is illegal. And they are demanding that the issue be put before the voters.
In a 1926 election, Santa Monica voters approved an $860,000 bond issue to acquire the land where the airport is located for use as a public park.
State law the following year expanded the definition of "park" to include airport uses, and the land has been the site of an airport and open space ever since.
Gregory Thomas, a Mar Vista homeowner who has led opposition to the project, and J. Peter Fiske, an attorney hired by Thomas, say that because voters approved the acquisition of the land as a park, voters must approve any different use of the land.
Thomas and Fiske were joined in a news conference this week by Sunset Park resident Eric Siss and Donald Brandsen, a West Los Angeles resident and pilot who single-handedly has documented much of the airport's history.
Producing copies of old City Charter amendments, staff reports and city correspondence, the four suggested that city officials who back the project are deliberately ignoring the law and the will of the voters.
"In our view, the course of conduct by the city government with respect to this project amounts to nothing less than an attempted disenfranchisement of the citizens of Santa Monica," Fiske said in a nine-page letter delivered to City Council members Wednesday.
Fiske gave the city 30 days to respond to a demand that the city stop the project or put the issue before the voters. Unless the demand is met or the city can produce documents to disprove their position, Fiske, Thomas and the others said they would sue to stop the project.
Santa Monica officials were quick to respond.
Development on the land is legal, they said, because the 1926 bond issue did not dictate a permanent or perpetual use for the land. Once the bonds were paid off in 1965, any stipulations made with the bonds became moot, city officials said.
30 Days to Respond
"It's a non-issue," said Peggy Curran, director of the city's Community and Economic Development Department.
"They're looking for ways to defeat the project," she said. "It would be more constructive to debate the pros and cons of the project based on its merits rather than looking for roundabout ways to defeat it."
Santa Monica officials said opponents of the project seemed to be grasping at straws by dredging up old arguments--long since resolved in a series of legal opinions in the 1970s and '80s and a 1984 comprehensive airport agreement that governs the land in question.
"This sucker has been trotted out ever since airport controversies began," Airport Director Hank Dittmar said.
City Atty. Robert M. Myers said he was confident the city would prevail in court. "The research we've done indicates there is no restriction on the use of that land," Myers said. "They are pursuing a course of action that won't get them very far."
Fiske and the other opponents disagreed.
Fiske said the city's argument that the stipulations made with the bond issue were retired when the bond is retired was "strange" and "not sound." A promise made on a ballot bond issue, he said, amounts to a "constitutional covenant" that does not change just because the bond approved in the measure is paid off.
Curran said there is precedent for the city's position. The city recently issued bonds to pay for downtown parking garages, promising parking would be free. Once the bonds are paid off, the city could charge for parking; meters have been installed.
Fiske further argued that the city's 1929 charter stated that all property in Santa Monica that had been set apart or dedicated as public parks "shall forever remain to the use of the public."
In 1935, according to correspondence cited by Fiske, the City Council adopted a motion to be included in another charter amendment, stating that "this (City) Council will not, or any succeeding council should not, make any future transfers of any park land without first again submitting same to a vote of the electors."