An appellate court sided with Los Angeles and Playa Capital Dec. 1 against a challenge to the city’s environmental analysis and its adherence to a writ of mandate in the latest series of legal battles between the Playa Vista commercial and residential development and its opponents.
The environmental organization Environmentalism Through Inspiration and Nonviolent Action and John Davis, a Westchester resident, appealed the judgment of the writ to the planned community by a lower court in 2006 to the Second District Court of Appeal. The plaintiffs also challenged an earlier ruling that stated no supplemental environmental impact report for the project was required.
The challenge to the writ stemmed from an approval granted to Playa Vista by city planning officials for methane gas mitigations for the planned community in 2001 that was then redirected to the trial court by the appellate judges. The writ of mandate ordered Los Angeles officials to vacate the city’s approval of methane mitigation for the purposes of determining whether a subsequent EIR or a supplement to the EIR was required with respect to groundwater dewatering associated with the methane mitigation measures and to take any necessary actions mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The city vacated its approval of the methane mitigation standards and hired experts who reviewed the technical data, the appellate court found. They determined that groundwater dewatering associated with the mitigation measures would cause no significant environmental impacts, and therefore no additional EIR was required.
“We conclude that substantial evidence supports the city’s determination that groundwater dewatering associated with the methane mitigation measures would cause no significant environmental impacts and that no subsequent EIR or supplement to the EIR was required,” the court wrote in its ruling. “Petitioners have shown no prejudicial abuse of discretion by the city and no prejudicial error by the trial court.
“We therefore will affirm the judgment.”
Representatives of Playa Vista said they hope this court decision would be the last in a series of legal actions against the developer.
“In a lengthy opinion, the Court of Appeal found no merit to a laundry list of objections made by longstanding opponents of the Playa Vista project,” said Steven Sugermen, a Playa Vista spokesman. “The court upheld the city’s extensive expert scientific reports, which found no significant environmental impact.”
Playa Vista Co-President Patti Sinclair added, “We are pleased that the Court of Appeal upheld the city’s actions, and found that no further environmental review is needed for Playa Vista’s Phase I. Playa Vista has been a thriving community for many years, and we welcome the ruling putting this matter to rest.
“We invite our neighbors to come see Playa Vista and visit the many stores, restaurants, parks, Saturday Farmers Market and public library that are all here for everyone to enjoy.”
Playa Vista homeowner Stephen Donell said the court findings demonstrate that the city and Playa Vista took the concerns about dangers associated with methane gas seriously by hiring experts.
“It once again confirms that the science is sound with respect to the methane mitigation measures taken,” Donell, the former chair of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester Playa’s Planning and Land Use Committee, said. “Issues involving dewatering were not deemed to have a substantial impact on the mitigation measures and I am once again grateful to have the methane protection measures, that many in our city do not enjoy.”
An attorney for the environmental organization indicated that the appellate court’s ruling might not be the final stop for opponents of the project.
“I’m disappointed by the ruling,” Todd Cardiff, a San Diego-based environmental lawyer, told The Argonaut. “We will be requesting a rehearing on this matter and we will consider taking it to the state Supreme Court.”
Davis’ claim that the city had vacated its approval of the methane mitigation was also rejected. “Davis contends the city failed to effectively vacate its approval of the methane mitigation measures, as required by the writ of mandate. We disagree,” the ruling states.
The court ruled that the City Council vacated its prior approval of the methane mitigation by adopting a motion to do so. “No more was required,” the court ruled.
The court identified three instances when an additional EIR would be required: If substantial changes proposed in the project require major revisions to the environmental analysis due to new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of effects identified in the EIR; if substantial changes in the circumstances surrounding the project require major revisions to the EIR for the same reasons; or new information of substantial importance that was not known and with the exercise of reasonable diligence could not have been known.
Davis says the judges ignored prior case law and indicated that he would like to see the legal action go to the state’s highest court.
“It is my opinion, the Court of Appeal decision did not address the key question of whether the 16-year-old EIR is adequate to describe the project today, including the new discovery of methane at the site,” he said. “According to another Court of Appeal decision, Laurel Heights, the EIR is the heart of CEQA.
“In this case the project has heart problems, so I will ask the court to reconsider and if necessary, take it up with state Supreme Court. That court considers important issues of law and resolves conflicts between appellate court decisions.”
Patricia McPherson, one of the petitioners represented by Cardiff, accused city officials of colluding with Playa Capital to keep what she feels are pertinent data out of the court record.
“Frustrating the situation is that the city has manipulated the time structured record to exclude specific reports and numerous methane groundwater dewatering reports that contradict what the city and Playa Capital, LLC are telling the court in their briefs,” McPherson accused.
“The heart of the situation is the extreme danger from the oilfield gases surfacing into the Playa Vista site and the unknown implementation of safety systems and the unknown ability of the gas safety systems to function in a high water table environment where it is still unaddressed whether dewatering systems can even keep the groundwater 1 foot below the gas intake pipes. A total lack of accountability remains.”
Donell views the ruling as vindication for the developer and supporters of Playa Vista, because some who have sued Playa Vista claimed the community would be fraught with danger for the neighborhood’s residents due to the methane gas situation.
“After living in the community now for approximately seven years, the professional project opponents that claimed the systems were faulty and that there would be explosions, etc. have certainly been proven wrong,” Donell asserted.
The court also rejected the petitioners’ contention that the presence of methane represents a special condition. “Contrary to petitioners’ argument, methane gas does not constitute exceptional circumstances. We will adhere to the law of the case and decline to reconsider our prior decision on this issue,” the court wrote.
The first stage of Playa Vista, which has over 6,000 residents, was built in 2003. An elementary school was approved for Phase I by the Los Angeles Unified School District board in 2008.
Phase II, which will include a shopping center along with retail, commercial and residential space, was approved by the City Council in April.
Cardiff thinks his client has a good chance before the state Supreme Court.
“Whenever you’re dealing with methane gas, the state Supreme Court takes it very seriously,” he said. “If the case gets there, I feel very good about our chances.”