Opponents of a recently approved commercial and retail office project at Santa Monica Municipal Airport have launched a referendum drive to force the City Council to reverse its approval of the 822,000-square-foot project or put the matter on the ballot.
Santa Monicans for the Public Trust, the community group organizing the referendum drive, has until Nov. 10 to collect 5,644 signatures, 10% of the city's registered voters.
"For the past few months, citizens have demanded the right to vote on whether the last open space in Santa Monica should be a commercial office development," Don Girard, the group's treasurer, said in a written statement. "This is their opportunity to place this issue on the ballot."
Oct. 10, the City Council voted 4 to 3 to approve an 822,000-square-foot version of what had originally been proposed as a 1.3-million-square-foot project. City staff had recommended a project of 1 million square feet after residents in the Sunset Park neighborhood and in nearby Los Angeles complained of potential traffic and environmental problems.
The Planning Commission in September had voted to recommend that the City Council limit the project to between 600,000 and 750,000 square feet after questioning the accuracy of an environmental impact report, which concluded that there would be no traffic impact with a project of 822,000 square feet.
The developer, Reliance Development Group, had threatened to back out if the city did not allow at least 822,000 square feet to be built.
Council members supporting the project said the estimated $28 million, which the city will receive from rental and other fees during the first 10 years after the project is completed, are needed to maintain the current level of city services.
Despite the final council action two weeks ago, opposition to the project has continued, including threats of legal action to challenge the adequacy of the environmental impact report.
Suzanne Brewer, a Sunset Park resident who is helping organize the referendum drive, called the effort "the ultimate veto power over the City Council."
"I believe with all my heart and soul that we have a government for the people and by the people," she said. "We the people bought this land in 1926 to use as a park. We the people have been left out of the process. Every neighborhood group has come out against this project. The only people who are against this referendum are the people who stand to gain monetarily from it."
Councilman David Finkel, who voted against the project, said he was "intuitively supportive" of the drive but stopped short of endorsing it. He added, however, "In my heart I feel that the will of the people was ignored."
"I have no sympathy to reverse the council's decision," said Mayor Dennis Zane, who voted for the project. "The public benefits that will be generated from this project vastly outweigh the traffic burdens."
Zane added that if the matter is placed on the ballot, he will "vigorously campaign to uphold the council's decision."
Former Mayor Jim Conn, who heads a citizens group supporting the project, called the referendum drive a "waste of time."
"The reality is that the majority of the people in this city support this project," Conn said. "It's just another tactic to delay the project, and it is going to cost a lot of money unnecessarily."
Conn said that even if the referendum is successful and the matter is placed on the ballot, he is confident that the project will be supported.
Sharon Gilpin, a spokeswoman for the group, said that because of the short amount of time to collect signatures, the group will use direct mail to collect signatures as well as having canvassers at markets and walking door-to-door. Gilpin said every registered voter in the city will receive a petition by mail. She said about $20,000 will be needed but does not expect any problem raising the money. Gilpin said she hopes to collect about 7,500 names.
For a direct mail petition to be valid, a registered voter must sign the petition twice, once as a registered voter and the second time as the circulator of the petition.