By John Davis
The frantic developers of Playa Vista are trying to explain why they installed drains in the Ballona Wetlands without State and Federal permits. One would expect a sophisticated response from a seasoned and very expensive public relations firm to massage the bad publicity. However, this is not the case.
Spokesman Marc Huffman has been quoted in the local media doing his best to explain the problem away. The Argonaut Newspaper quotes him in the July 17th edition as saying: “The drainage lines were constructed many years ago, at the request of the city of Los Angeles.” This line of defense is similar to one used by comic Flip Wilson in the 70s: “The devil made me do it.”
That is the best excuse Playa Capital has to offer, and it is pathetic. The magnitude of the damage done to the environment since the installation of the drains is currently unknown because our State and Federal Agencies have turned a blind eye for years. The prior plan was to keep it quiet. But now, the cat is out of the bag.
Upon discovery of the covert drains, Grassroots Coalition, a locally based non-profit issued a press release that was picked up by the Wall Street Journal and Reuters. The Marina del Rey Patch and more notably, the LA Weekly, covered the story on June 18. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) manages the State-owned Ballona Ecological Reserve. The LA Weekly quoted their spokesperson as saying: “This issue only recently came to our attention. … We’re working closely with the Coastal Commission to look into this situation”.
According to Patricia McPherson, Executive Director of Grassroots, the department knew of the drains as early as January and probably long before that. She filed a public records request with the DFW and was provided a diagram of the unpermitted underground drains. Those drains remove surface water from the wetlands and dry them out until they resemble an unwatered lawn.
The Coastal Commission staff knew too, but did little until McPherson gave a presentation that showed the drainage devices to the Commission in June. While she was describing them during the Deputy Directors Report, Andrew Willis, an enforcement officer for the Commission, rushed from the South Coast Office across the street, racing down the stairs to pass Deputy Director John Ainsworth a letter. The Deputy then stated in part that, “We have opened a violation against Playa Capital…. The Deputy Directors Report is always written. Here, the Playa Capital violation was only made verbally, with no written record for the Commissioners or the public to track.
For decades the Coastal Commission staff has been covering up for violators. The Coastal Act makes provisions for temporary cease and desist orders to be issued by the Director upon discovering a violation. Then, at the next meeting of the Coastal Commission, it is considered in public hearing. The Commission then determines if the order will be made permanent and whether sanctions will used to punish the violator.
The Act also requires the maximum participation of the public. With the Director’s current arrangement, public participation is denied entirely. For instance, the Executive Director knew about the City of Los Angeles’s violation of the Coastal Act by foisting an illegal curfew on the public as early as 2007. Staff then waited until 2010 to, “open a violation”, only after the Venice community demanded it.
Now, it is 2013 and the Commission staff has still failed to enforce the Coastal Act against the City, claiming again and again the City will apply, someday. The California Coastal Act says nothing about opening a violation. This term of art has replaced cease and desist orders in almost all cases. The Commission provided this author a letter in 2011 stating there were over 1000 “open cases”. In November of 2012, Executive Director Charles Lester informed the Coastal Commission and the public that it would be impractical to bring the violations to the Commission for judgment, because there were so many of them. This is the soft landing the Commission staff wants to provide Playa Capital. Rather than using a hammer, the staff is offering a pillow and nightcap to the violator. Occasionally, the Director will go after a low budget violator to create the illusion the agency fully enforces the law. But, it is just a public fairy tale. If this were not enough coddling, the Commission’s Director provided another safety valve for Play Capital LLC. In the letter sent to Playa Capital, staff murmured an, “after the fact”, Coastal Development Permit could be obtained, not applied for, but obtained. But this is another trick first dreamed up by Peter Douglas to protect wealthy violators. As former Executive Director of the Coastal Commission he knew the Coastal Act requires a permit for development before it happens, not after.
By adopting this stance, the Commission has been sending a signal to developers that it is ok to conduct an illegal development in the Coastal Zone, and if you get caught you can simply obtain for a permit latter. Such actions institutionalize criminal behavior, encouraging yet more criminality. This major slap in the public face by Playa Capital will not go unpunished though, due to the diligent effort of McPherson and Grassroots Coalition. The whole world is watching now, demanding justice. The activity must cease so no further compounding damage is done to the public wetlands.
Other State and Federal enforcement agencies also have a role to play. The State Lands Commission, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Caltrans, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, and the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board all have jurisdiction here. So does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the Federal Clean Water Act. Playa Capital can no longer hide in the shadows while corrupt government officials protect it. It is summer and the sun is shining bright truth everywhere. Contact GrassRoots Coalition www.SaveBallona.org
Ballona Wetlands photo by Tammy Andrews