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Fox Criticized for Bid to Block Lawsuits : Legislation: Opponents say the studio wants unfair protection against future challenges to expansion. Film executives claim they have acquiesced to 700 conditions.

July 25, 1993|RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CENTURY CITY — Call it "Fox, the Sequel."

It's the story of what happens after a major film and TV company outlasts its enemies, subdues City Hall and, after 3 1/2 turbulent years, wins approval from Los Angeles officials to pursue a controversial $200-million expansion of its studio.

In this one, studio executives still aren't ready to celebrate.

Some thought there was cause for celebration when the City Council last month gave its blessing to the studio's plans to add 771,000 square feet of office and production space and consolidate its movie and television operations at the same 53-acre Century City site.

But Fox executives seemed certain that its vanquished opponents--including several homeowners groups who fear that traffic generated by the project will ruin their neighborhoods--would turn to the courts in a bid to further delay the expansion.

And so with the help of state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), Fox officials earlier this month appealed to the Legislature and won initial approval for a bill specially crafted to protect the project from future lawsuits.

The bill, co-authored by Rosenthal and state Sen. Stan Statham, a Republican from Oak Run in Northern California who is a member of the state Film Commission, would prevent lawsuits aimed at blocking the Fox project by declaring that it complies with all local zoning and planning requirements.

The measure would also exempt Fox from further review under the California Environmental Quality Act, the main state law that regulates such projects.

Among angry state and city officials, the effort appears to have gone over like a bad party joke.

"This is the sleaziest special interest maneuver of the year," said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who has pledged to defeat it.

Critics say that by denying citizens of their legal rights to petition the courts for redress, the measure undermines public confidence in the planning process and sets a disastrous precedent of state intervention in local affairs.

With Hayden in the lead, opponents hope to derail the measure when the Legislature returns from summer recess in the middle of August.

"Fox has rubbed people the wrong way on this," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "These folks are in show business, and there seems to be a certain arrogance over there that they can do no wrong."

The City Council, at Yaroslavsky's urging, has voted unanimously to oppose the bill.

Yaroslavsky, who was criticized by Fox opponents who felt he went too far to accommodate the studio during the lengthy approval process, has been especially critical of the studio's latest tactic.

In a missive to Fox Vice President George Vradenburg III shortly after the Senate's Government Operations Committee approved the measure July 13, the councilman accused Fox of unfairly trying to change the rules of the game and warned of a public backlash.

"The public will not understand, nor will they accept, Fox's need to seek special dispensation from the law in this manner," Yaroslavsky wrote.

In a terse reply, Vradenburg denied that the studio was trying to change the rules, adding, "We are simply trying to bring the 'game' to an end before all the participants die from exhaustion."

For all the heat the studio has taken since the special legislation was introduced, Fox officials have scarcely budged in their defense of the action.

"Anyone who suggests that Fox is trying to get around CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) is torturing the facts," said David Handelman, another studio vice president, who dismissed the opponents to the bill as "some vocal people who have access to fax and Xerox machines."

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Handelman said the studio has spent $35 million to comply with more than 700 conditions imposed on the project by the city before the plan was approved.

"It isn't as if we haven't had an (environmental impact report)," he said. "The EIR is two feet thick. This is not about trying to skirt environmental review. It's about getting relief from future frivolous lawsuits so that we can move forward and create jobs for this city and this state."

The studio's critics, including some who say the city's environmental review of the project was inadequate, offer a different view.

"They've complied with 700 conditions only if you count normal building code requirements as conditions," said Laura Lake, who heads Friends of Westwood.

Critics say the measure would have a chilling effect on attempts to curb unreasonable development.

"It's a very dangerous precedent," said Gabrielle Meindl, the Sierra Club lobbyist who was the only person to testify against the measure before the Government Operations Committee.

"If this project gets this exemption, you can be sure that other developers whose projects face litigation will be hobbling up to Sacramento for the same kind of relief," she said.

She and others expressed surprise that Rosenthal, a lame-duck senator who has a strong record on environmental issues, agreed to sponsor the studio measure.

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