Wetlands dispute dampens plans for auto dealer parking lot alongside the 90 freeway

By Gary Walker

Complications to Marina del Rey Toyota’s plans for a 390-space parking lot on the narrow, unkempt strip of land that separates the eastbound Marina (90) Freeway from the La Villa Marina condos come down to a single word: wetlands.

John Kilbane, a Santa Monica-based architect for NOARUS Auto Group CEO Morris Bishton, has argued publicly that “no wetlands exist” at the location where the auto dealer wants to build the lot. However, representatives of the California Coastal Commission — the body empowered with determining the presence of wetlands in coastal areas in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife — say otherwise.

“We did a report in the general area stating that there are wetlands, so we know there are wetlands on the sites in the stream / drainage ditch. We don’t know the extent, but it’s unlikely the entire parcel is wetlands. To know exactly where the wetlands are — and are not —and to allow any development, we would need a wetlands delineation,” said Noaki Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the commission.

Marina del Rey Toyota has received planning approvals from the city of Los Angeles, but homeowners of the Villa Napoli condo complex and the wetlands advocacy group Ballona Institute have appealed to the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission.

Of even more consequence is that wetlands are protected by the California Coastal Act, meaning Toyota must pursue coastal development permissions from the California Coastal Commission in order to begin construction. And part of the process includes Toyota/NOARUS submitting a delineation study for commission ecologists to review.

At the request of Toyota, a scheduled planning commission hearing on the project has been continued until Dec. 5 to allow for completion of the wetlands delineation.

“We felt that it wouldn’t be fair to continue without the study,” Kilbane said about the continuance. “Our biologist has been working on a study, and he showed it to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. … One of our biggest issues is people saying that we haven’t been transparent about what we’re doing, and that’s not true.”

The land in question adjoins seven La Villa Marina condo complexes as it stretches from Mindanao Way toward the upper part of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Preserve near Culver Boulevard.

Homeowner associations for four of those complexes are supporting Toyota’s plan for a lot, which many neighbors believe would solve recurring public safety issues related to nighttime homeless encampments.

Aaron Craig, a software engineer who lives in Villa Imperia, says neighbors will gain a sense of security with the parking lot because Toyota has promised new landscaping and a nine-foot wall separating the property from residential areas.

“The current issue is we have people camping on that land and walking through to other encampments. We’ve had instances of tools having been stolen, and fires for cooking have been started there, and there are people here who have concerns for their safety,” Craig said.

Jane Usher, a former city planning commissioner and attorney for opposing condo complex Villa Napoli, says Toyota’s development application is trying to sweep the presence of wetlands under the rug.

“The Planning Commission should stay the proceedings, grant the appeals and send Toyota back to the drawing board for an accurate application. The current application is inadequate and deceptive,” said Usher, adding that county assessor documents mark the presence of wetlands. “It’s inconceivable that Toyota did not have knowledge of these wetlands. The notion of paving over wetlands to build an overflow display for 300 Toyota cars seems reprehensible.”

The one thing that condo residents who support the project and those who oppose the project agree on is that each has been unfairly targeted on social media, exacerbating the conflict.

The existence of wetlands have never before been a topic of debate among neighbors, said Craig, who laments the contentious and impolite segue the discussion has taken, including questioning the motives of all involved.

“The [real] question is what we are going to have there,” he said. “If there are wetlands there, that’s up to the state to sort out.”