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Playa Vista Foes Drop 1 of 3 Remaining Suits

Environment: Activists say they plan to focus on possible contamination of the site. Developers say opponents realized they couldn't win the case.

February 10, 2000|MONTE MORIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The environmental group seeking to halt development of the Westside's Ballona Wetlands has dropped one of its three remaining lawsuits against the firm that wants to build the vast Playa Vista residential and commercial complex there.

Leaders of the Wetlands Action Network said Wednesday that they are withdrawing an unfair-business-practices lawsuit against Playa Capital Co. because they want instead to concentrate on encouraging the state and federal government to start investigations of possible methane gas and oil contamination. The 1,087-acre site, south of Marina del Rey, used to include an aircraft manufacturing plant and oil field.

"The level of toxic contamination there is greater than we ever thought," said spokeswoman Marcia Hanscom. "We felt we had to dismiss the case so we could focus on these problems."

Developers, though, have characterized the contamination claims as false and insist that the project has routinely met environmental standards.

"We are the most scrutinized project in the history of Los Angeles," said David Herbst, a Playa Capital vice president. "All of these things are continually reviewed, addressed and reviewed again."

Playa Capital officials say withdrawal of the case from Los Angeles Superior Court is just the most recent in a series of legal losses suffered by Hanscom's group. The company contends that its otherwise tenacious opponents simply realized they could not win in court and now want to put the best face on defeat.

"If I was actually listening to their spin, I'd have to take a lot of Dramamine," Herbst said.

Hanscom said her group retains the option to refile the unfair-business-practices suit. Wetlands Action Network had accused Playa Vista developers of violating state business and professional practices by clearing the site without proper approval.

Abandonment of the legal action follows the defeat of another suit in November. In that case, the Wetlands Action Network argued unsuccessfully that developers had not properly subdivided the property.

Playa Capital executives, who say opponents have hit them with more than half a dozen lawsuits, have characterized their foes' legal strategy as one of "vexatiousness and frivolity." Of all those suits filed, only two remain active, one in Superior Court and another in federal appeals court.

The appellate case is the most closely watched by both sides. It focuses on whether Playa Vista developers can reconfigure a portion of a saltwater marsh to act as a storm water runoff system, or whether they must devise a new system. Project opponents say a negative decision for the project could significantly delay work at the site, which developers deny.

Plans for the Playa Vista site include 3,200 residences and a business campus. The project was once to be the home of DreamWorks SKG, but the studio withdrew and developers are now searching for a replacement tenant. So far, only grading work has been started, but proponents foresee nearly 30,000 people living there in 10 years.

The Wetlands Action Network has sought to halt all development of the site, urging that it be transformed into a nature preserve. The project would harm endangered birds and other wild animals, opponents say, and exacerbate traffic and smog problems.

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