Wednesday, October 26, 2005
C.A. Cites Contamination Threat, Orders New Playa Vista Review
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Los Angeles city officials must conduct a new environmental review with regard to the potential impact of groundwater dewatering in connection with mitigation measures designed to prevent the release of dangerous gases at the Playa Vista development site, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
The decision by Div. Three overturns a ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Wu, who held that the city’s decision to issue bonds for community facilities development, based in part on a conclusion that the mitigation measures were adequate, was not subject to review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Justice Walter Croskey authored the unpublished opinion of the Court of Appeal.
The plans for the Playa Vista development, on what was for many years the site of the Hughes Aircraft plant, have been controversial from the inception. The City Council approved the first phase of the project—which as then envisioned would have included over 3,400 residential units, 1.25 million square feet of office and light industrial space, 35,000 square feet of retail space, and 300 hotel rooms—in 1993.
The plans were later modified to replace the hotel space with additional office space for entertainment, media, and technology uses.
In August 1999, the city voted to establish a community facilities district on the project site, and the following year the council took up the issue of whether to issue bonds to fund public infrastructure improvements in the district. When concerns were expressed about the presence of methane and other gases on the site, the council’s Budget and Finance Committee held a hearing and heard testimony by both a city-hired expert and the developer’s expert, John Sepich.
After hearing the testimony, the committee recommended that the chief legislative analyst study the issue and report back after a public hearing. That recommendation was approved by the full council, which referred the matter for further action by the Planning and Land Use Management, or PLUM, Committee following the CLA’s report.
The CLA eventually agreed that there were potential risks from methane and other gases but concluded that methane mitigation system designed by Sepich was adequate to enable the project to proceed.
The PLUM Committee endorsed the report, as did the full council, which eventually approved the issuance of bonds and concluded that the decision to do so was categorically exempt from CEQA.
Several groups of area residents challenged that decision, saying the approval of new mitigation measures was a discretionary approval under CEQA, that there had been a change of circumstances requiring a subsequent environmental impact report, and that there was no substantial evidence to support a finding that the Sepich measures would be adequate.
Wu rejected the groups’ petition for mandate, finding that the council action did not trigger CEQA review, and that there was in any event sufficient evidence to support the decision.
Croskey, however, noted that the original EIR “cautioned against dewatering in connection with a proposed sewer along Jefferson Boulevard and ëlong-term pumping’ in connection with subterranean structures, noting the potential for subsidence and exacerbation of existing groundwater contamination.”
In light of correspondence by Sepich to the Department of Building and Safety, prior to the approval of the bonds, indicating that dewatering was “critical to insuring the proper operation of the methane mitigation systems,” the court was required to conclude that new or more severe significant impacts might result.
The court directed that the city vacate its approval of the mitigation measures and determine whether there are conditions requiring a subsequent EIR or a supplement to the original EIR.
Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein and Justice Richard Aldrich concurred in the opinion by Croskey.
Attorneys on appeal were Lawrence Teeter and Sabrina Venskus for the plaintiffs, Assistant City Attorneys Susan D. Pfann and Jack L. Brown for Los Angeles, and Robert D. Crockett, Kathleen O’Prey Truman and Damon P. Mamalakis of Latham & Watkins for the developers.
The case is Environmentalism Through Inspiration and Non-Violent Action v. City of Los Angeles (Playa Capital Company), B174856.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company