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Council Denies Appeals to Block Beach Club

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

May 26 -- As more than 125 supporters of a public beach club at 415 PCH rallied to encourage Santa Monica officials to stand firm, the City Council Thursday night unanimously denied four appeals by its Gold Coast neighbors to block the project.

The vote was just the latest development in an ongoing battle between supporters of a city-owned beach club open to all and five homeowners on Palisades Beach Road who fear the project will pose safety hazards and lower their standard of living. (see story)

Before the meeting, Friends of 415 held a colorful beach party demonstration on the City Hall lawn. As TV news cameras rolled, children ran in and around the crowd of festive supporters, chowing down on free pizza and popsicles, and proponents played volleyball on a makeshift court.

Two girls adjust pages bearing 1,000 signatures in support of 415 PCH displayed in front of City Hall.

Afterwards, proponents packed the council chambers and spilled out into the hallways, where a closed circuit monitor broadcast the dozen speakers picked from the more than 80 supporters who’d signed up to testify.

“This project has support from absolutely every sector of our community,” Friends of 415 Co-Chair Susan Cloke told the Council before reading a letter from her co-chairs State Senator Sheila Kuehl and State Assembly member Fran Pavley.

City officials were told that approximately 1,000 signatures had been gathered an on-line petition at the web site launched by Friends of 415, a grassroots organization formed in response to fears that the handful of beachfront property owners might torpedo the project. (see story)

While solidly in agreement with beach club proponents, council members made it clear they were taking seriously the concerns of the beachfront homeowners, who have threatened to take the City to court if they don’t get their way.

The opponents claim the project is in violation of Proposition S, a law that restricts building restaurants on the beach. City staff and supporters disagree, saying the catering at the limited affairs the club will allow doesn’t fall under the restrictions of Prop S, which was designed to increase, not decrease, public access to the beach. (see story)

The homeowners also claim that the locker building, which the city plans to tear down, is protected as a historical landmark along with other features of the beach estate that once belonged to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s paramour, actress Marion Davies.

In addition, opponents contend that the project has a flawed environmental impact report (EIR) and doesn’t provide adequate parking. City staff refutes these claims.

“This could become very expensive,” Mayor Pro Tem Bobby Shriver warned. “We are at risk over this project, of losing it, if this litigation goes on indefinitely.”

The project is largely funded by a nearly $30 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, which project supporters fear may fall through if litigation blocks development of the beach club for too long,

But that doesn’t have to happen, according to the appellants.

They repeatedly said Thursday that while the homeowners think they have a sound legal case against the City -- an assertion city staff disputes -- they are willing to drop it if the council meets their demands.

The property owners want a traffic signal guaranteed at the site entrance and a contract with the City assuring them that conditions restricting the use of the property will be enforced.

“This is about as simple as it could be,” Palisades Beach Property Owners Association attorney William Delvac of Latham and Watkins told the council.

Either give his clients the signal and the contract or “we will go forward with other legal remedies,” he said.

The Palisades Beach Property Owners Association, consisting of five homeowners, is one of the appellants; the other is Palisades Beach Road homeowner Jonathan Ornstein.

While Council member Ken Genser said the Council wasn’t in any position to negotiate deals or contracts during an appeals hearing, he and his colleagues seemed interested in finding ways to address the homeowners’ demands without putting the City in an untenable position.

“I think we’re a city of good will,” Mayor Bob Holbrook told the crowded chambers. “I would just extend that good will to the appellants to see if we can get past some of these roadblocks.”

Ornstein, who lives just south of the proposed beach club site, said he was worried about the traffic hazard posed by an unregulated entrance on the highway.

“I don’t think my concerns are frivolous at all,” Ornstein said. “I’ve seen dead people in front of my house,” referring to an accident at the proposed entrance to the beach club.

But City officials have maintained all along that it’s impossible for them to apply for a signal until after the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is approved, and even then, the City can’t guarantee a decision made by the California Department of Transportation. Still, they say, they are doing all they can to get a light installed.

Council member Kevin McKeown amended his motion to approve the EIR by adding language to direct staff to “immediately file for a traffic signal” once the motion was passed.

McKeown said he wanted to “put good will on the table” with his amendment, and added the council members “don’t want this to wind up in court.”

The neighbors’ demand for a contract was trickier.

Even if the council was allowed to negotiate a contract at an appeals hearing, such a contract might create problems down the road, council members said.

A contract with the neighbors of 415 PCH might limit the City’s flexibility, Shriver pointed out. And it could have even broader ramifications.

“We’re very nervous about creating precedents that would suddenly turn into a citywide problem,” Shriver said.

Genser was also concerned about entering into contractual relationships with a handful of property owners. “Someone could come out of the woodwork and file a separate action,” he mused. Or, “when they sell their homes, the next neighbor could file.”

In what seemed to be an attempt to obviate the need for a contract, Genser amended the council’s motion for a development review permit to add language that the conditions in question be added to the City’s application to the California Coastal Commission.

That way, the Coastal Commission could act as a disinterested third party to which citizens could appeal if they felt the conditions were being violated.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie also pointed out that there are other ways to enforce the permit conditions, including filing complaints with the Building and Safety Department and filing nuisance and other civil lawsuits in Superior Court.

Once these points were cleared up, the council quickly voted to deny the appeals as groundless and re-certify the documents needed to proceed with the project.

All votes were unanimous, but Council member Herb Katz recused himself because of a possible conflict of interest. One of his clients might be a party to the potential lawsuit,
he said.

It remains to be seen how the defeated appellants will respond to Thursday’s vote.

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