Tuesday,. April 15, 2003
C.A. Upholds Commission Approval of West Bluffs Development
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Coastal Commission was correct in declining to consider non-coastal zone impacts when it approved a controversial development plan in the Westchester-Playa del Rey area, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Five Friday upheld the issuance of a development permit for a parcel adjacent to the Ballona Wetlands, turning aside a writ petition by the Sierra Club and two other groups that have been fighting development of the West Bluffs area for more than a decade.
Catellus Residential Group, which acquired the property after Magure Thomas Partners pulled out of the project several years ago, originally proposed a development of 119 single family homes on the 44.69-acre parcel. Environmentalists and nearby residents opposed the project, saying the land was unique and should remain open space, and the Coastal Commission denied a coastal development permit in 1999.
The developer then came back with a revised plan that reduced the number of homes to 114, eliminated coastal zone filling of Hastings Canyon, expanded the amount of revegetation of coastal scrub, and retired development rights in order to limit future development along the bluff face.
As with the original plan, residential development was confined to the bluff top, outside the coastal zone.
After the City of Los Angeles again completed an environmental impact report concluding that there would be no significant environmental impacts, the commission issued a coastal development permit, in 2000.
The Sierra Club, Spirit of the Sage Council, and Ballona Ecosystem Education Project—also known as B.E.E.P.—challenged the permit in the San Francisco Superior Court. Judge James Robertson denied the groups’ petition for writ of administrative mandate, saying the decision complied with the Coastal Act of 1976.
Justice Linda Gemello, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed.
The justice rejected the contention that the plan violates the act’s requirement that environmentally sensitive habitat areas, or ESHAs, be protected. There was substantial evidence before the commission that the project area is not an ESHA, Gemello said.
The act defines an ESHA as “any area in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments.”
Previous studies, Gemello noted, found that there was only one significant plant species on the site, Diegian sage scrub, and that the area was of limited habitat value. Those findings were consistent with expert testimony before the commission, which was not required to adopt the contrary viewpoint of the challengers’ expert, the justice said.
The jurist went on to say that the commission correctly ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the impact of the project on adjacent ESHAs that are outside the coastal zone.
A 1978 amendment to the act, Gemello noted, clarified that the act does not authorize the denial of a permit “on the grounds the proposed development within the coastal zone wil have an adverse environmental effect outside the coastal zone.”
The effect of the amendment, the justice explained, was to reject an informal attorney general’s opinion letter informing the commission that it could exercise jurisdiction over the entirety of a project that partially overlapped the coastal zone.
In an unpublished portion of her opinion, Gemello said granting the permit did not violate the act’s requirement that the commission consider the impact of a project on views and land forms.
The opponents’ argument, the justice wrote, “appears to rest on the idea that the Coastal Act imposes a zero tolerance threshold for impacts on views and landform alteration.” The act, however, requires a balance, under which the commission is to assure that projects are “sited and designed” to “protect views” and “minimize the alteration of natural land forms, the justice explained.
In this instance, Gemello said, the commission acted within its discretion based on the evidence before it.
The case is Sierra Club v. California Coastal Commission (Catellus Residential Group) , 03 S.O.S. 0415.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company