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Court Rules City Erred in Passing Part of Playa Vista Impact Report

Appellate panel requires L.A. to rewrite part of its environmental review on the Westside project.

October 27, 2005|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

The saga of Playa Vista, one of the most debated and litigated developments in Los Angeles history, took another twist this week when an appellate court ruled that the city erred in approving a portion of the project's environmental review.

The decision means that the city will have to rewrite part of the voluminous environmental impact report for the project, even though a large portion of it has already been built. But Playa Vista critics and backers disputed the long-term significance of the ruling.

Playa Vista, which is south of Marina del Rey, has been the subject of nearly three decades of battles. Critics fought unsuccessfully to block the project, saying the ecologically sensitive land should remain open space.

Planned for about 13,000 residents, Playa Vista is now home to about 4,000 people and some commercial development. It caught the attention of urban planners in part because the development's relatively high density -- with condominiums, apartments, town homes and underground parking -- is seen by some as a model for future growth in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

According to the ruling, released Wednesday, city officials violated the state Environmental Quality Act in 2001 when they signed off on the developer's plan for dealing with methane gas deposits under thousands of homes, condos and office units on one of the last open stretches on the Westside.

The ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal came in a suit filed by a coalition of environmentalists fighting the development. The lawsuit contended that the methane gas safety measures are inadequate and unproven, and could adversely affect the environment.

But just what, exactly, the ruling means to the project's future -- as well as to the existing buildings the ruling covers -- is unclear, though the plaintiffs clearly saw it as a victory.

"This ... sends a clear message that justice will prevail when citizen perseverance is supported by sound science," said Sabrina Venskus, the lead lawyer for the coalition. "I'm hopeful that the new mayor and city councilpersons will avail themselves of the facts and scientific evidence and utilize this opportunity to protect the public and the environment."

Venskus may believe the ruling was clear, but the city attorney's office didn't appear to agree with that assessment Wednesday.

"We're trying to figure out what the court said and what the legal options are," spokesman Frank Mateljan said. "It is a little dense in the language. We're still unpacking it."

At its core, the lawsuit took issue with how the developer dealt with construction below the water table. Playa Vista's water table is nearly at the surface, and project opponents contend that the method used to deal with the underground water could cause the ground to shift and clog the pipes that allow methane gas to escape.

According to the ruling, "the city failed to determine" -- as required by law -- whether the measures used to remove the excess groundwater and the methane gas would result in other, more severe environmental issues. The ruling stems from a 2001 petition filed by a group of environmentalists against the city and Playa Capital, the project investors. In 2004, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Wu denied the petition. But this week a three-judge appellate panel reversed the ruling and sent it back to Wu. The judge, in turn, is expected to send it back to the city with instructions to do another environmental impact report.

But the decision is so narrow, dealing with just one portion of the environmental review process for part of the project already nearing completion, that it may have little effect on Playa Vista's future as a whole. Playa Vista President Steve Soboroff said as much in a statement issued Wednesday, saying the ruling had to do with "technical, legal issues. It is not about safety."

"In its ruling, the court clearly states that there is substantial evidence to support the city's finding" that the construction methods used are "feasible and will reduce methane concentrations to an insignificant level," he said.

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Playa Vista, weighed in Wednesday as well, saying he would be meeting with city staff members to assess the impact of the ruling. He said that while running for office, he was repeatedly told that Playa Vista was a "done deal" that could not be stopped despite concerns over traffic, the environment and the uprooting of sacred Indian burial grounds.

"That assessment was wrong, and I intend to work on all those concerns," he said.

Venskus, meanwhile, said that although the long-term effect of her group's lawsuit was unknown, in the short term it meant the city would have to perform another environmental review of Playa Vista. "Now that they've got it there," she said, "they're going to have to find a way to [deal with] the methane."

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