Dispute Over Office Project at Airport May End in Lawsuit

Times Staff Writer

A dispute over whether it is legal to build a sprawling office complex on land at Santa Monica Airport will probably be decided in court, opponents of the project said this week.

Most city officials, however, are confident that a legal challenge would fail.

At issue is a claim by homeowners who oppose the troubled, $280-million project that land at the airport was designated as a public park 60 years ago and cannot be used for anything else unless Santa Monica voters approve.

A consulting attorney hired by the city has rebutted that claim in a 16-page opinion, concluding that voter approval is not necessary.

The attorney, Richard S. Volpert, argued that courts in California have given charter cities broad powers over changes in the use of their properties. No law exists in the state, he said, that would require Santa Monica to go before the voters for a decision on how the airport land should be used.

1939 State Law

The homeowners, represented by attorney J. Peter Fiske, had contended that since the land was acquired for use as a park in a 1926 bond issue, the land had to remain a park unless another vote was taken. The bonds were paid off in 1965.

A 1939 state law says parks acquired with bond proceeds cannot be sold off or used for other purposes unless voters approve. But Volpert said the law does not apply to charter cities such as Santa Monica.

Fiske had also claimed that the city's original charter prohibited doing away with parks. But Volpert said provisions of the original charter were superseded by a new charter in 1946.

Furthermore, Volpert said, the land has not been used as a park for years. More recently the land has been put to industrial and commercial uses, such as airport hangars and repair shops.

"Any discussion and analysis of restrictions applicable to public parks must be tempered by the reality of the present and historical use of the . . . land," Volpert said.

Volpert is a member of a downtown Los Angeles law firm that was hired specifically to handle issues surrounding the airport property.

Several city officials said they felt that Volpert's response, supported by comments from City Atty. Robert M. Myers, laid the issue to rest. They suggested that Fiske and his sponsors were trying to sidetrack debate over the proposed project.

"This project ought to be decided on its merits, not because someone is threatening unproductive litigation," Mayor Dennis Zane said. "I don't regard (their challenge) as a threat to the project."

"Apparently, no case has been made," said Councilman David Finkel. "What they (the opponents) are really doing is using another method of sounding a social cry of 'don't build the project.' "

"The real issue is 'What should this project be?' not 'Will it be?' " Finkel said.

Court Challenge

But Fiske and Mar Vista homeowner Gregory Thomas, who has led opposition to the project, said they were not satisfied by Volpert's response and will continue with their plan to challenge the project in court.

"They (Santa Monica's lawyers) seem more interested in trying to slap us down with heavy artillery than (in) elucidating the issue," Fiske said.

"If they are not interested in reasoning, evidently they don't give us any choice" other than to sue, he said. A suit could be filed as early as next month, he said.

Fiske said the courts might be persuaded to side with those opposed to the project because park land is an increasingly scarce commodity in California's urban areas.

Thomas said that because of publicity over his group's newest attempt to fight the project, donations averaging $100 a day had begun to roll in.

Offices, Movie Studio

As proposed, the project is a 1.4-million-square-foot complex of offices and a movie studio that will be built by the Reliance Development Group. City planners have recommended the project be reduced by 20%.

Councilman Herb Katz, like several other council members, agreed the project should be scaled back as opponents have demanded. But he flatly rejects not developing the land because it would attract new problems such as gang violence and difficult maintenance.

"Do we want to sponsor a regional park for all of L.A.? The answer is no," Katz said.

Several council members who want to see some kind of project built are nevertheless demanding that the developer take adequate measures to accommodate traffic.

The city has said the land must be developed to produce millions of dollars in much-needed revenue for Santa Monica.

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