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Santa Monica, Environmentalists Go to Court Over Playa Vista Expansion

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

August 3 -- Traffic emerged as a key issue as the City of Santa Monica joined environmental activists in court this week for opening arguments in a lawsuit to halt the controversial expansion of Playa Vista.

Methane gas levels also registered as an important issue during the first day of hearings Monday, according to Superior Court Judge William Highberger, who will ultimately decide if 2,600 new homes should be added to the massive project four miles south of Santa Monica.

During the hearing, Highberger said he was “troubled” by the expansion’s potential impact on traffic, according to a Copley News Service report.

The lawsuit -- which Santa Monica council members voted to join in September 2004 -- contends that Los Angeles officials approved the project despite an environmental impact report that failed to address an increase in traffic, high methane gas concentrations, the fate of an Indian burial ground and increased wastewater.

The suit is similar in scope to an unsuccessful action filed against the initial development of Playa Vista, known as Phase I.

In his remarks to counsel, Judge Highberger said that it “appears there is some validity to the argument that this is not a smart-growth mix” of housing with stores and offices, but a housing project.

The plaintiffs argued that the environmental report did not include information that suggests there may be as much as a 15 percent growth in regional traffic.

When pressed by the judge, Playa Vista lawyer Robert Crockett said he did “not know” where plaintiffs received their information, and that "to say we’ve omitted it is incorrect," according to news reports.

The judge, however, was quick to admonish the plaintiffs for what he saw as a misleading traffic analysis that identified Culver City and Baldwin Hills as contributing to northbound traffic from the Village. The communities, he noted, are directly east of the development.

“It makes your argument unbelievable,” he told Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Cara Silver.

In addition to traffic, the plaintiffs also argued that the levels of methane gas found at the site, as noted in the environmental report, are based on inadequate studies and that Los Angeles authorities did not follow the recommendations of their own experts.

The gas concentrations in the soil, plaintiff’s contend, are among the highest in the Los Angeles basin, with levels reaching 323,000 part per million, far exceeding the 12,500 parts per million needed to be explosive, according to plaintiffs lawyers.

Attorneys for the developers countered that the methane is manageable and occurs often in the Los Angeles area. They also said the City’s experts changed their recommendation on soil testing over time.

Santa Monica joined the lawsuit last September when the City Council voted 4 to 0 to mount a legal challenge to the second phase of development.

The vote came nearly one week after the LA City Council voted 10 to 1 to approve an environmental impact report for the project, bringing to a close a long and rancorous debate over the development of the Ballona Wetlands area.

“The traffic impacts on Santa Monica were not studied sufficiently,” Council member Richard Bloom said during the council meeting.

"The public process surrounding Playa Vista," said former Councilman Michael Feinstein, "has long ignored the concerns of Santa Monicans and others around the region about the negative impacts it would have on the quality of life on the Westside and the health of the wetlands and the bay.

"I'm sorry it had to come to this, but our responsibility is to stand up for the community of Santa Monica and that's what we're going to do," he said.

Also voting to challenge Playa Vista were Council members Kevin McKeown and Ken Genser.

Many opponents of the project want the acreage -- which sits between Playa Vista’s Phase I development of single-family homes and the historic Howard Hughes industrial site -- preserved for open space.

Wire dispatches contributed to this report.

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