After four years of litigation, Ballona Wetlands environmentalists have won a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and Playa Vista investors over Phase I methane gas mitigation measures.
Permanent dewatering systems were placed under all Playa Vista basements to pump groundwater so that methane mitigation systems would work properly and pipes used to vent methane gas would be clear of debris.
Last week, appellate judges agreed with the environmentalists who alleged that dewatering could pollute the groundwater.
“This case proves that with citizen perseverance and sound science, justice can prevail,” said attorney Sabrina Venskus, lead counsel for the environmentalists.
A three-judge panel of the California Second Appellate District Court of Appeal ruled unanimously Tuesday, October 25th, to vacate a Los Angeles City Council decision approving the mitigation measures.
The judges also sent the case back with directions to the Los Angeles Superior Court system to grant the environmentalists’ petition for writ of mandate.
Lower courts have denied the petition by the environmentalists, who challenged the City Council on its adoption of the mitigation measures.
The environmentalists are Environmentalism Through Inspiration and Non-Violent Action, the Grassroots Coalition, the Spirit of Sage Council, and individuals John Davis and Daniel Cohen.
They collectively sued the City of Los Angeles and the Playa Capital Company LLC, which includes investors such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs that are developing Playa Vista.
“Playa Capital continued to build Phase I, thinking the courts would let them get away and now they are in a pickle because they have buildings that are not finished,” Venskus said.
Playa Vista president Steve Soboroff said Playa Capital is continuing with its construction.
The Los Angeles City Council certified in 1993 an environmental impact report (EIR) for Phase I of Playa Vista.
In 1995, the City Council certified an EIR addendum, approved modifications to Phase I, and adopted a mitigated negative declaration for subdivision of land.
Phase I includes development of 3,426 residential units, 1.25 million square feet of office and light industrial space, and 35,000 square feet of retail space east of Lincoln Boulevard on both sides of Jefferson Boulevard.
The City Council Budget and Finance Committee considered underground methane gas and proposed a gas monitoring system in 2000 as part of hearings to fund public infrastructure improvements at Playa Vista.
Also in 2000, the City Council approved a Budget and Finance Committee decision to request that the city’s Chief Leg- islative Analyst (CLA) hold a public hearing on methane gas mitigation.
The City Council directed the CLA to present a report to the City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
Environmentalists sued, claiming that information on the presence of methane gas and the creation of the Playa Vista Prevention, Detection, and Monitoring Program warranted a supplemental or subsequent EIR process.
They also alleged that the methane mitigation measures would not work.
Specifically, the environmentalists said in their petition that:
n new information of “substantial importance” mandates another EIR;
n “significant effects on the environment” that were not discussed in the certified EIR or that were shown to be more severe than effects listed in the EIR mandate another EIR;
n new mitigation measures require permanent dewatering, which will “cause or potentially cause” groundwater contamination;
n the City of Los Angeles proposed future study on hydrogeology does not pass as evidence that the mitigation measures would minimize environ- mental impacts;
n “there is no substantial evidence” that changes to Phase I plans or mitigation measures would minimize environmental impacts; and
n new information proves that mitigation measures will have the “significant effect of bringing increased gas to the surface.”
“The city and the developers did not have the evidence they said they had for the mitigation measures,” Venskus said. “They were trying to make procedural arguments such as statute of limitations because they didn’t have scientific facts and none of their arguments got past any of the judges.”
Second Court of Appeal judges concluded that conditions were not present for the city to require that a supplemental or subsequent EIR be prepared.
The three-judge panel vacated the City Council approval because the city could not determine whether or not dewatering would cause new or severe environmental impacts.
Judges said dewatering has the potential to create or cause more harms to the environment.
“The court looked at a number of issues raised by opponents and — with one exception — ruled in the city’s and Playa Vista’s favor, and that exception is groundwater dewatering,” Soboroff said.
“When this same issue of dewatering was analyzed in the Phase II EIR that was approved by the City Council last year, the EIR concluded that there were no potentially significant impacts associated with dewatering for the methane mitigation systems,” Soboroff said.
Environmentalists touted the Second Court of Appeal ruling as a major victory.
“This sends a strong message to big East Coast investors like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs — the investors in Playa Vista — that David can beat Goliath,” said Patricia McPherson, president of the Grassroots Coalition.
“This time, the court said Playa Capital cannot do what it wants. Playa Capital and the city have to go back and start from square one.”
She said that since the Second Court of Appeal sent the case back to a lower trial court, the trial court presiding judge has many options on what to do with the environmentalists’ petition.
“We don’t know what will become of this [three-judge panel] ruling because the city has based its entire methane mitigation code on what was approved for Phase I,” McPherson said. “Playa Vista Phase II methane mitigation measures were also approved based upon what was done for Phase I.”
Phase II plans include 2,600 more housing units and commercial space.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl — whose 11th Council District includes Playa Vista and other Westside communities — is meeting with city staff to discuss the implications of the Second Court of Appeal decision.
Rosendahl is also reviewing previous City Council decisions on methane mitigation measures and he said requiring Playa Capital to develop another EIR could be a possibility.
“Questions of public safety are paramount to me, and I will insist that city officials and the developer do everything in their power to ensure that we protect the health and safety of Playa Vista residents and the residents of neighboring communities,” Rosendahl said.
“I was repeatedly told that Playa Vista was a done deal and there was nothing I could do to address concerns about traffic, the environment, sacred Indian burial grounds, or public health and safety,” he said.
Rosendahl said he intends to work on methane mitigation issues as well as all other concerns about Playa Vista “to the satisfaction” of his constituents.
Soboroff said Playa Vista would move forward with its plans.
“Playa Vista is proud of the community it has created,” Soboroff said. “The ruling on dewatering pertains to technical legal issues, it is not about safety. The court clearly states that there is substantial evidence to support the city’s finding.”