Attorney Barry Fisher was circling in the murky air over the fogged-in Eureka airport last week when the California Coastal Commission voted against his clients without hearing what he had to say.
It was the latest round in the fight Fisher's clients, a group of Venice residents, have been waging for years against a proposed mini-mall on Ocean Front Walk.
Developer Steve Blanchard wants to build a three-story complex on the Venice Boardwalk that would contain offices, shops and 12 fast-food restaurants, some of which would serve beer and wine.
The project's history and ever-changing fortunes are worthy of the plot of a Kafka novel.
In last week's chapter, the Venice residents' battle took their attorney Fisher about 600 miles from Venice and cost them about $500 in air fare. He was stuck in mid-air when the Coastal Commission voted 6 to 4 to reconsider the project, which it had rejected in May.
This added fuel to Fisher's complaints that the hearing should never have been in Eureka, which is as far from Venice as Salt Lake City is.
The vote gives new life to the project, Fisher said. "Deciding to reconsider it is a major step toward approving it."
Typically, a coastal project comes before the commission after it has environmental clearance and permits from the local authorities--in this case, the city of Los Angeles.
The Blanchard project diverged from the norm after the developer, frustrated by city delays, invoked a little-used state law called the Permit Streamlining Act, which requires local government to act in a timely manner. Attorneys for the city of Los Angeles concluded that the developer was correct and that the law had been breached, so the project received automatic approval without complete assessment of its environmental impact.
A few months later, however, a separate city board ignored the legal advice and refused to issue permits, leading to a lawsuit by Blanchard.
When the Coastal Commission was asked to approve the project in May, the panel refused because of the unsettled legal and environmental situation, among other reasons.
Since then, the lawsuit has been settled, and the developer asked the Coastal Commission to reconsider the application last week.
The Coastal Commission staff was against reconsidering the project, saying the lawsuit settlement did not present sufficient new evidence to take another look at the project.
If the commission had voted in accordance with its own staff report, the proposed mini-mall would have been stymied for now. That's what project opponents were hoping for. They were also hoping to have the matter heard in Southern California, so that they could directly appeal to the commission.
The Coastal Commission meets monthly, alternating between Northern and Southern California.Once a year it meets in Eureka, which is closer to the Oregon border than to the Bay Area.
At the May hearing in San Diego, people on both sides of the issue arrived by plane, car, train and bus. An even better turnout could have been expected in the Los Angeles area, project opponents argue.
"The difference between a hearing in Eureka and a hearing in Los Angeles is the difference between closed and opened doors," wrote Fisher in a letter to Venice-area Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, dated Aug. 8 and faxed to her office.
Galanter, a proponent of the project, did not agree. In a letter she wrote the next day to the chairman of the Coastal Commission, Galanter urged the panel to vote to reconsider the project--and to do so in remote Eureka.
In her letter, Galanter reasoned that it was preferable for the commission to vote to reconsider the project in Eureka so that the actual hearing on its merits could be heard in Marina del Rey next month.
"You can't get much closer (to Venice) than Marina del Rey," said Galanter press secretary Rick Ruiz. He said the location of the Eureka hearing had little to do with the attorney's missing it. "He could have gotten stuck in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway," Ruiz said.
Project opponent Steve Schlein, however, said there is no guarantee that the issue will be heard at the Marina del Rey meeting. Schlein suggested that Galanter's motive was "a hostility to public participation" and "great indifference to the effect of her decisions on people's lives."
Attorney Fisher said that no matter what Galanter thinks of the merits of the project, she should have supported having the reconsideration hearing in Los Angeles.
This is not the first time controversial Los Angeles projects have been scheduled for hearings in Eureka. Last August, a hearing on Channel Gateway, a giant project proposed for Lincoln Boulevard, next to Marina del Rey, was convened in Eureka. That hearing also had Galanter's blessings.
The commission's chief counsel, Ralph Faust, said in a telephone interview from Eureka that an effort is made to schedule hearings near the areas they affect, but that it doesn't always work out that way because of deadlines and other variables.
Because of state budget cuts, the commission's Southern California staff members--even the regional director--could not attend the hearing to orally defend their position or answer questions.
Fisher said he let commission staff members know he would be in Eureka. He said they could have put the item at the end of the agenda to give him time to arrive. Faust said no message was relayed to the staff or commissioners in Eureka. The hearing went on as scheduled.
Ironically, developer Blanchard was in the same delayed airplane as Fisher. But Blanchard's attorney, Sherman Stacey, was there to argue for the developer before the commission. Stacey had flown to Eureka on the previous morning, before the fog set in.