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Fate of Sony Helipad Still Up in the Air : Development: A 'no' in May becomes a 'maybe' in July as the studio comes up with a new proposal. The council nears a final vote on expansion.


CULVER CITY — Call it the helipad that refuses to die.

The question of whether Sony Pictures Studios will be allowed to build a helicopter pad at the expanded film studio it is developing in Culver City may have seemed resolved with a clear "no" in May.

That was when the company withdrew its request for a permit to operate a helipad, whereupon the city Planning Commission approved Sony's plan for a major overhaul of the 44.8-acre studio site.

But the issue took on new life this week as the City Council neared a final vote on the expansion. Sony officials have been pressing the city to leave the door open for future helicopter use if a quiet enough helicopter can be developed, and on Monday, some City Council members appeared sympathetic.

Sony has contended that it needs the helipad to ferry stars and clients to its studios. "We consider the future possibility of being able to shuttle with helicopters, not even on a high-volume basis, as kind of a competitive edge with other studios who have the capability," Barbara Cline, Sony Pictures senior vice president, said Wednesday.

Sony's expansion plan calls for greatly intensified use of its Culver City property, essentially transforming the studio site over a 15-year period into the international headquarters for Sony Pictures Entertainment, parent company of TriStar and Columbia. Its media operations are now scattered in 23 locations.

Residents and city officials repeatedly said during public hearings that they opposed giving Sony permission to build a helicopter pad as part of the expansion because of concerns over noise and safety.

Responding to the public opposition, Sony on May 19 withdrew its request for a permit to use the proposed helipad for takeoffs and landings. At the same time, however, the company asked that language explicitly prohibiting helicopter use be removed from the development agreement, and the Planning Commission went along.

Mark Winogrond, the city's community development director, said Monday that the Planning Commission intentionally removed the prohibition to make it easier for Sony to reapply for a permit in the future.

On Monday, two of the five City Council members urged that the prohibition be restored.

Councilmen James D. Boulgarides and Steven Gourley said the development agreement should specifically bar helicopter landings except in emergencies. If the technology for quieter, safer helicopters is developed, then the agreement would be subject to amendment if Sony and the city could agree to it, Gourley said.

"There are good policy and legal reasons for it," Gourley said of the prohibition. A negative finding on the helipad with respect to noise and safety, he said, would provide notice to "future staff and councils that a specific finding was made on the helipad." Sony might renegotiate the agreement, but future councils would know the basis for the this council's decision, he said.

If the development agreement is silent on the issue, Boulgarides added, the city would be inviting legal challenges.

"We have to spell it out," he said.

"Nobody is opposed to Sony and I'm not opposed to Sony," Boulgarides said, adding that the process is to identify and avoid problems in the future.

Councilman Albert Vera and Mayor Mike Balkman suggested that the council could accomplish the same restrictions by imposing escalating fines for unauthorized helicopter landings. The fifth council member, Jozelle Smith, was largely silent during the discussion.

If the development agreement specifically prohibits helicopter landings except in an emergency, Sony would have to go through a two-step process with the city to change the policy: The development agreement would first have to be amended, then the company would have to apply for a conditional-use permit from the Planning Commission.

Cline said Sony would like to avoid any reopening of the development agreement for amendments because it would leave Sony "a little bit vulnerable to the city wanting to make other changes. . . . We're trying to get some certainty for the future with the agreement."

Cline added that the company would still have to go through an extensive process to get a conditional-use permit.

"It's not that Sony would ever be able to put something over on the public without their knowledge," Cline said. "(Obtaining) a conditional-use permit is a very public process."

The council will continue its deliberations on the helicopter issue along with questions about building heights and the timing for traffic mitigation measures at a meeting July 28.

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