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City, Neighbors in Legal Tug of War Over Beach Club

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

April 3 -- Lawyers for homeowners and the City are wrangling behind closed doors, hoping to reach an agreement by Wednesday to avoid legal action that might derail plans for 415 PCH, the City’s proposed community beach club.

While the City has agreed to an increasing list of conditions made by the neighbors of the former Marion Davies estate, property owners now want a binding agreement they say is necessary to hold the City to its word.

This latest demand stopped the Planning Commission from acting on the plans in March. Now supporters worry that if the project continues to stall, the City might lose the $28 million the Annenberg Foundation has pledged for the ambitious rehab of the earthquake-battered facility.

“We’ve been contracted through a funding agreement to a very tight timeline,” Barbara Stinchfield, director of Cultural and Community Affairs, told the Planning Commission on March 15.

The City plans to start construction in July 2007 and open the beach club in January, 2009.

For his part, Leonard Aube, managing director of the Los Angeles office of the Annenberg Foundation, is very pleased by the City’s performance to date.

“The City has performed spectacularly well,” he told The Lookout Thursday. Under Stinchfield’s direction, the City has met all its benchmarks, Aube said.

The only problem he could imagine is that if construction is delayed, labor and materials costs are likely to go up. He cited a 30 to 40 per cent increase in concrete and steel prices in recent years.

If lawyers for the Palisades Beach Property Owners Association, which is made up of homeowners along the affluent coastal strip, are right, there’s no need for that kind of delay. What they want is fairly simple.

“The Palisades Beach Property Owners Association is seeking an agreement that for a defined period of time the City won’t change the conditions,” William Delvac of Latham and Watkins said.

“The City has responded with the right kinds of conditions,” Delvac said, but if the City is going to act in the dual role of a developer and an enforcer, his clients need the protection of a binding commitment.

Conditions include fencing around the pool and picnic areas, night guards, security cameras, moving the restroom to a staffed entry area and reducing the size of rooms for public gatherings.

“I’m a little surprised at the reluctance of the City to agree,” Delvac said, adding that, as of Friday, “the ball is in the City’s court.”

When the subject came up before the City Council on February 28, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie recommended against signing a contract that would bind the City indefinitely.

Last week, City Attorney Joe Lawrence said that lawyers for both parties were in discussions and that they hoped they’d “get it worked out soon.”

Homeowners and their attorneys have also indicated that they will fight the development if the City doesn’t put a full traffic signal at the entrance to the south parking lot on the site.

The City has countered that it can’t make that promise yet because the California Department of Transportation has to approve the signal, and it won’t do that until after the City has adopted the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

However, Stinchfield said last week that the City is pursuing the light “aggressively.”

Supporters of the project are rallying. Joel Brand, past president of the Santa Monica Conservancy, is organizing a coalition at www.friendsof415.org

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Brand said, adding that it’s more proper to call it a community, rather than a City, project.

Brand said the City has “worked really hard to go beyond the letter of the law,” and by giving ground to 415 PCH neighbors, it’s sacrificed the public benefit to “avoid a frivolous lawsuit.

“Most communities would kill for a project like this,” he said, adding that when “five or ten or 15 wealthy neighbors are willing to toss away this incredible gift, it’s a tragedy.”

Brand pointed out that other non-profits and communities are watching this unique partnership between the City and the Annenberg Foundation to see if it’s a model for more to come.

“There’s more at stake than 415 PCH,” Brand said.

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