Perhaps the biggest blow to a large commercial development at Santa Monica Municipal Airport was delivered late last week when a citizens group submitted nearly 9,000 signatures to the city clerk in a referendum drive to reverse the City Council's approval of the project.
If at least 5,644 signatures are verified by the county registrar-recorder within 30 days, the City Council will be forced to reverse its Oct. 10 approval of the 822,000-square-foot project or place the matter on the ballot.
Sharon Gilpin, a spokeswoman for the citizens committee that organized the referendum drive, said she is confident that enough signatures will be certified because about 70% of the signatures submitted were returned by mail.
Because the group had only about two weeks to collect the signatures, petitions were mailed to all 56,000 registered voters in Santa Monica. Gilpin said that method is a more reliable--albeit more costly--way of collecting signatures. She said the drive cost about $30,000, nearly all of it raised by donations from residents.
According to city officials, the City Council is likely to call a special election in the spring rather than wait until the next regularly scheduled municipal election in November, 1990.
If the referendum is certified, the council's approval of the project is suspended until the matter is decided by the voters, according to City Clerk Clarice Johnsen.
The project has been mired in controversy since it was first announced in 1987 that the city had selected Reliance Development Group to build a 1.3-million-square-foot commercial office project on a 37-acre parcel in the southeast corner of the airport.
After several public hearings in which residents from both Santa Monica and Los Angeles complained of potential traffic problems, the City Council on Oct. 10 voted 4 to 3 to reduce the project to 822,000 square feet.
Since then, a lawsuit was filed challenging the city's authority to approve such a development without voter approval, and two Los Angeles City Council members have vowed to hold up permits for street improvements in Los Angeles connected with the project until all questions about traffic are resolved to their satisfaction.
But if the referendum drive is successful, the lawsuit and Los Angeles City Council members' action would be unnecessary.
Gilpin said the campaign could run as high as $200,000 on each side, depending on the degree of involvement from the developer, Reliance Development Group in New York.
Spokesmen for the developer could not be reached for comment.
Mayor Dennis Zane, a major supporter of the project, has vowed to campaign vigorously for the development. Zane and three former mayors, including Jim Conn, held a press conference two weeks ago urging support for the project because of the millions of dollars in revenue it would generate for the city.
Conn, who was mayor last year and campaigned heavily for the project before the City Council's vote, said he expects the project to survive a tough campaign.
"When you throw anything into the electoral process, it's usually the best campaign that wins," he said. "My hunch is that the project will prevail, but it will be a difficult fight."
Conn said he believes many residents will vote against the project as a vote against over-development.
"It's always easier to say 'no' rather than to solve a problem," he said. "But if this project is defeated it will not . . . solve long-range fiscal concerns . . . or what to do with airport land."
Rol Murrow, president of the Santa Monica Airport Assn., a group of airport supporters who recently filed suit to stop the project, said he believes public support of the project was lost when the City Council refused from the very beginning to place the matter before the voters.
"I think people would have supported it if it had been presented in reasonable fashion," he said, "but the City Council dropped the ball and citizens are going to vote to overturn the decision."