Playa Vista wins one, loses one

Thursday proved a frustrating day for Playa Vista developers.

In the morning, they won a court victory when a federal judge lifted a temporary restraining order that had halted work on the project, the proposed home of DreamWorks’ permanent studio.

But late in the afternoon, a higher court stayed the restraining order, again blocking further work on Playa Vista.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew had given the greenlight to Playa Capital Co. for land movement beginning today, including the creation of a freshwater marsh at the 1,087 acre commercial and residential development. “Because the court does not find sufficient likelihood of success on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, it hereby denies plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction,” said Lew.

But, late Thursday, environmental groups received an 11th hour reprieve from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The court stayed the temporary restraining order, halting any construction until it can make a conclusive ruling next week.

“It’s a huge environmental issue and it should be addressed on a high level,” said Steve Crandall, an attorney representing the environmental groups.

Despite the 9th Circuit’s late ruling, attorneys representing the Playa Vista Capital Co., a partnership led by affiliates of investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, remain confident. “The court will rule on the facts, and based on the facts of the declarations filed, I believe that the court will dissolve the stay,” David Vena, a Playa Capital attorney, told Daily Variety.

Earlier ruling favored builder

Earlier Thursday, Lew ruled that the project, near Marina del Rey, does not violate the Clean Water Act. Lew vacated a scheduled Nov. 18 trial date and instead asked both attorneys repping the plaintiffs and Playa Capital Co. to file motions for summary judgment on the National Environmental Protection Act.

The plaintiffs, including the Wetlands Action Network, Ballona Land Trust and California Public Interest Research Group, have argued that the Playa Vista’s permits violate the NEPA and the Endangered Species Act.

“I am very disappointed in (Lew’s) ruling,” said Marcia Hanscom, Wetlands Action Network’s exec director. But, Hanscom added, “We plan to continue fighting for the sensitive wetlands. You don’t create a habitat that has been there for hundreds of years.”

Habitats at issue

The environmental groups maintain development will destroy the habitat of several endangered species, including the southwestern willow flycatcher. Officials of Playa Vista Co. and rival environmental groups argue that the plan to set aside 240 acres for wetlands as well as create a freshwater marsh will, in fact, create a more livable habitat for the endangered species.

“This is the craziest lawsuit in the world,” said Adi Liberman, chief of staff for Councilmember Ruth Galanter and former exec director of environmental group Heal the Bay. “They are suing someone on environmental grounds for restoring wetlands.”

However, Lew’s written opinion bluntly stated that the environmental groups were unlikely to ultimately prevail. “The court finds that the Army Corps (of Engineers, which issued the permit for construction) seems to have adequately considered the environmental impact of the proposed Playa Vista project and the plaintiffs do not possess a likelihood of success on the merits of their NEPA claim,” stated Lew.

Separately, Playa Capital and DreamWorks officials have confirmed that negotiations are moving forward to complete a deal to build the proposed 22-acre studio campus in Playa Vista.

“We have begun discussions,” said DreamWorks exec Andy Spahn. But, in keeping DreamWorks’ ongoing poker face regarding its options to locate elsewhere, Spahn added: “We are under no time pressure.”

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