It is 1992 in Marina del Rey, and a bunch of workers in moon suits shows up next door to a pricey, new 96-unit condo project. They are not men from Mars but workers assigned to clean up toxic waste discarded there 20 years ago.
"The homeowners will be in the middle of a state Superfund cleanup," said environmental attorney Barry Groveman, who posed the above scenario in an interview. "There's going to be bloody hell to pay."
Groveman, who represents an industrial property owner in the area, last week raised those concerns to the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, arguing that an environmental impact report is necessary.
He persuaded the commissioners to delay--at least for three weeks--plans to build luxury condos across the street from the movie-theater end of the Marina Marketplace at Glencoe and Maxella avenues, plans that a lot of people had hoped to see approved.
The commission, on the advice of the city attorney's office, withheld final approval of the project to reconsider its environmental ramifications. The matter is back on the commission's agenda Oct. 14.
The project is unusual in that the developers' biggest boosters are homeowner groups from the four phases of the nearby Villa Marina condominiums, who favor residential over commercial development. Developers Jeffrey Rosen and Paul Plotkin consulted with residents even before buying the property, and the final plan is a group effort.
Paul Doebler, a Villa Marina resident who lives across the street from the proposed condominiums, told the commissioners at a crowded public hearing: "We do not see the hazard."
Paul Novak, a consultant for the developers, said the participants should be rewarded for "one of the few successful examples of developer-homeowner cooperation."
Councilwoman Ruth Galanter has endorsed the project in a letter to the commission. Galanter's planning deputy, Jim Bickhart, said in an interview that the site has to be cleaned up but that this should not interfere with the project.
Another representative of the developer denounced Groveman for using what he called terrorist tactics to stall the development. Attorney Lawrence Straw Jr. said Groveman's references to "toxics and PCBs" were "merely an attempt to create some hysteria."
Groveman, a former environmental-crime prosecutor and one of the authors of Proposition 65, the Clean Water Act, said the site next to the proposed condominium project was contaminated with industrial solvents called PCBs (polychlorinated biphenols) and other toxic substances by Cornell-Dubulier Electronics, which operated there until 1971. He said the site is on the state Superfund cleanup list and is scheduled to be cleaned up in 1992.
Developer Plotkin charged that Groveman is lying about the severity of the problem, which he and his consultants insist will not be worsened by construction of the condos 300 feet away.
Plotkin's partner, Rosen, said: "Essentially, the toxic issue is truly a non-issue with respect to our proposed project. It's being used to keep residential development out of the area."
According to Novak, an environmental impact report is unnecessary.
Groveman, however, said such a report is legally mandated. If one is not forthcoming, he said, he is prepared to seek a court injunction.
To proceed otherwise is "irresponsible and reckless," Groveman said. "We're not saying, 'Don't build.' We're saying, 'What's the hurry to do it in 10 days?' "
Both sides point to consultants' reports that back up their claims. They argue over why the cleanup has been delayed to 1992, and the developers charge that Groveman has puffed up the toxic issue when his real aim is to protect his client's option to buy the property on which the toxics sit.
Groveman readily concedes that he is trying to protect his client from potential liability from lawsuits from irate condominium owners looking for someone to blame.
But he insists that his example of men in moon suits arriving in 1992 is the most likely scenario. Even if further study determines that the contaminants will probably not be spread by construction, the PCBs and other toxics are scheduled to be removed.
Their removal is bound to trigger legal actions from people who have paid $500,000 for a condominium without being aware of the problem beforehand, Groveman said.
He said PCBs are among the most toxic of contaminants and must be trucked to disposal sites in Arizona or Texas.
A 1988 report prepared by Meredith/Boli & Associates for the electronics firm responsible for the toxic spill said contaminants were detected in ground water. The developers' consultants point to findings that the contaminants have not migrated for 17 years and are unlikely to do so now.
Commercial tenants say a separate issue underlying the controversy is the encroachment of residential development onto the dwindling number of light industrial enclaves on the Westside.
"This is an inroad to eradicating light industry in this area," said Kerry Feldman, owner of Fineline Studios, a tenant in the building closest to the proposed condominiums.
At the hearing, Feldman said he had just bought a tear-down home in Venice near his business. He questioned the rationale of urban planning that would ultimately force businesses such as his to relocate far from home, adding people like him to commuter freeway traffic.
Feldman said his company's blast furnace operates 24 hours a day, emitting a "white noise" that he believes will drive the new condo owners to distraction--and legal action. "It's the beginning of a battle that will ensue for years," he said.