Planning Commission puts the brakes on Toyota lot alongside 90 Freeway

By Gary Walker

The Los Angeles Planning Commission has halted Marina del Rey Toyota’s plans to build a parking lot alongside the east-bound Marina (90) Freeway at Mindanao Way, siding with locals who appealed the project.

The California Coastal Commission and others have identified the narrow strip of land between condo complexes and the freeway as wetlands, which became grounds for the appeal.

“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 dish,” California Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz wrote in an email.

The Toyota dealership wants to park about 300 of cars on that land and erect fencing around it, which has generated support among locals concerned about public safety issues related to homeless encampments, such as a brush fire that caused a freeway closure a few years ago. Five homeowners associations within the Villa Marina condominium complex support the project, citing public safety concerns.

But for Planning Commissioner Lisa Waltz-Morocco, the wetlands designation was enough to convince her to support the appeal in what turned out to be a 4-0 vote on Dec. 5.

“Either you’re a wetland or you’re not. You can’t be just kind of a wetland. I think that’s what the applicant was trying to say,” Waltz-Morocco said. “And in my opinion, based on testimony that we’ve heard, it is a wetland. Considering that, I think we are in violation of the Coastal Act.”

The homeowners association of Villa Napoli, part of the La Villa Marina condominium complex adjacent to the land in question, joined local wetlands advocacy group the Ballona Institute in appealing an earlier approval of the project by city planners.

Toyota had previously argued that the land along the freeway is not a naturally occurring wetlands area, but a result of freeway and housing construction.

At the December hearing restoration biologist Edith Reade, who is working as a consultant for Marina del Rey Toyota, stated that whatever wetlands may exist along the freeway is small and manmade — basically a drainage ditch excavated along an old railroad berm.

Land-use attorney Benjamin Reznick, hired by Marina del Rey Toyota in August, displayed a map from an 1875 book about coastal wetlands that did not designate the area in question as wetlands.

“From 1875 and delineations subsequent to that have never included this parcel as part of the wetlands,” Reznik told commissioners.

Planning Commission President Michael Newhouse wasn’t swayed, describing the parcel as “a strip of land that has been fairly natural for as long as anyone can tell.”

Ballona Institute biologist Robert Van de Hoek told commissioners that he’s identified several wetlands plants and 14 identifiable patches of wetlands on the project site.

Richard Siegel, a homeowner in Villa Marina, told commissioners that Toyota had worked with adjacent homeowners to reach widespread consensus about trees, landscaping and fencing.

“It’s very easy to get lost in the symbolism and the emotion, but I would ask that the commission focus on the outcome of your decision. We have a compromise now, and I would urge the commission to support our compromise,” he said.

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin has opposed the parking lot, issuing a statement that pitting wetlands preservation against public safety created a “false dilemma.”

Reznik said Toyota has not decided whether to appeal the recent planning decision or proceed to a California Coastal Commission hearing.