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S P E C I A L A R T I C L E
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
Sunday, April 29, 200l
GROUPS TRADE LAWSUIT SETTLEMENTS FOR VOICE
ENVIRONMENTALISTS PAY PRICE FOR COMPROMISE
Groups fighting developers have won huge
settlements, but at the cost of muzzling their voice.
By SEEMA MEHTA
TIMES STAFF WRITER
From the Newport Coast to the Ballona Wetlands near Marina del Rey, environmentalists have sued developers and
won huge concessions: preservation of critical landscapes, dramatically reduced developments and even multi-million
dollar restoration projects. In return, however, some activists have negotiated away their most powerful weapon: Their
The lawsuit settlements were supposed to create compromise, ending decades of high-profile battles over
controversial developments. But, in some cases, they have become yet another flash point between activists and
developers and created a schism within the environmental community. And deals signed more than a decade ago still
are making headlines as other groups challenge them.
Environmentalists who have signed such deals usually give up their right to oppose the compromise development, and
sometimes must actively support it. In one case, former opponents of the Ballona development would be required to
testify in favor of the project, and even publicly take issue with a new generation of critics battling the development.
Some environmentalists defend the deals. Though they may not be getting everything they want, they say it's better
than the alternative. But others charge that the deals often have no expiration date, fail to allow room for changes in
law and public attitudes, have a chilling effect on free speech, and can be used to harass grass-roots groups on
Someone came up with this idea and it spread like wildfire," said Mary Hudson, a land-use attorney from Sausalito. "It
raises some real difficult problems, not the least of which is the specter of controlling the speech of future groups."
Hudson confronted the problem last summer when Friends of the Irvine Coast hired a hydrologist to study the Irvine
Co.'s runoff management plans at Crystal Cove. Hudson advised the group not to let the hydrologist testify at a key
California Coastal Commission meeting last summer for fear of violating pacts that settled lawsuits in 1987 and 1997.
In the 1987 settlement, the Irvine Company agreed to leave 76% of Newport Coast's nearly 10,000 acres untouched,
eliminate office buildings and push planned hotels farther inland from Pacific Coast Highway. In 1997, the developer
added 70 more acres of open space, set back parking from the highway and agreed to build fewer homes in some
environmentally sensitive areas.
In return, Friends agreed not to oppose the company's development plan as long as it conformed to the area's local
We got a very good deal," says Fern Pirkle, president of the Friends. "We were concerned that we couldn't talk about it,
but we continue to feel we had made a good bargain."
Sara Wan, chairwoman of the Coastal Commission, said she can't fault the groups for making deals, and there are
usually other organizations willing to take up the challenge. But, she said, "It stifles the public process; it's very
Laguna Greenbelt President Elisabeth Brown, a party to both settlements, said it pains her to drive on PCH and see the
earth scraped bare and the construction of so many houses on what were once green hills. But she asks, "What was
the alternative? Something much worse, much more intense and inappropriate for that very special setting. We did
the best we could."
ENVIRONMENTALISTS PICK THEIR BATTLES
Pirkle added that the Friends are allowed to comment on some aspects of the project, but taking the chance with the
hydrologist was too risky. "One wouldn't want to take a chance that (the Irvine Co.) interpret it a different way than we
did," she said. "We don't like to get drawn into legal battles. Raising money is difficult or traumatic for groups like
ours. They already have the staff and attorneys."
Repeated efforts to reach Irvine Company officials familiar with the pacts were unsuccessful.
Hudson declined to comment on the specifics of the Friends case, but said the chance of violating a pact sometimes
may not be worth speaking out.
"That is definitely a chilling effect -- where the downside is so severe that even though you think you might be right, you
can't afford to take the risk," she said.
Another Orange County environmental group that testified publicly after signing a pact has found itself back in court.
A confidential 1989 settlement agreement between the Amigos de Bolsa Chica and Bolsa Chica landowner Signal
Landmark first became public this year -- 12 years after it was signed -- when Signal tried to force its longtime
environmental foe into arbitration to see if the Amigos violated the deal. A judge denied Signal's request earlier this
month, but the land-owner plans to refile the petition.
Signal's suit says the Amigos had agreed to end its lawsuit and to support a development plan for Bolsa Chica in
exchange for $1.2 million to pay attorney's fees. The suit goes on to say that Amigos violated the deal by testifying at a
November Coastal Commission meeting.
This was a peace accord, and they violated," said Signal attorney George Soneff at a court hearing April 6.
But Amigos President Linda Moon said the group agreed only to back a conceptual planning agreement known as the
Coalition Plan that the developer abandoned four years later.
Moon declined to say how much the group is spending on attorney's fees. But, she said, Signal was using the dead
deal as "a tool for harassment.... They're trying to divert our energy and our finances and to muzzle us."
In Los Angeles County, the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands have perhaps the most explicit quid pro quo agreement,
billed as the end of a raging 14-year battle over the Playa Vista development proposal near Marina del Rey.
In 1990, in exchange for the developers' setting aside 269 acres of wetlands and a $10-million wetlands restoration
deal that has since escalated to more than $13 million, the environmental group agreed not to oppose development
that doesn't affect the wetlands. They also promised to support former developer Maguire Thomas Partners verbally
and in writing before planning officials and the media, and to speak out against other environmentalists who question
the wisdom of current development plans.
In 1997, developer Playa Capital stepped in. It plans to spend $40 million on wetlands and riparian restoration.
The first phase of the project has been approved, and environmental documents for the second phase are due by the
end of the year. The 1,087 acres could one day include 13,000 homes and millions of square feet of commercial
space. About half of the site will remain open space.
Friends of the Ballona Wetlands President, Ruth Lansford, insists that the group has maintained its autonomy. "One
of the most important things is, we did not concede support for project," she said. "We agreed to support the project if
and when we determined that it will not have an adverse effect on wetlands. We have not yet made that
Playa Vista spokesman Coby King said, "Our understanding of the settlement is that Friends are bound to support the
project only if Playa Vista keeps its promises."
On the other hand, he added, Playa Vista is putting $40 million into wetlands restoration, and if they're going to give
this money to Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, it seems reasonable to ask, if in fact restoration has a positive effect on
the wetlands, Friends ought to support it."
DIVISION AMONG GRASS-ROOTS GROUPS
Other environmental groups say Friends essentially has become a shill for the developer.
It's like they've sold their souls," said Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Wetlands Action Network.
Lansford said such accusations are grossly inaccurate. However, she said such misinformation is the reason that the
Friends are in the midst of renegotiating their 11-year-old agreement.
The one unquestioned fact in the matter is that the Ballona settlement agreement has caused a deep, bitter schism in
the local environmental community -- a Friends center has been vandalized, activists have locked themselves to
bulldozers, and Lansford has even received death threats.
Daniel Cooper, an attorney with San Francisco-based Lawyers for Clean Water who represents Orange County Coast
Keeper and other similar groups in the state, said that even if a group has noble intentions such pacts create the
perception of secret deals and collusion.
It is inconsistent with the purpose of an environmental organization to be silent on an issue," he said. "It doesn't make
Christopher Stone, an environmental law professor at USC, said such deals are often contrary to an environmental
group's mission. "You've got organizations -- the very purpose of which is to monitor and speak out -- and they agree
not to engage in the very function for which they have been established and for which they are being financed by
people who make voluntary contributions. It really sounds bad," he said. "And forced speech is all the worse."
For developers, the deals really haven't settled disputes, leading some to question the pacts' worth. "There's no
certainty anymore," said Laer Pearce, chairman of the public affairs committee of the Building Industry Assn. of
Southern California. "You don't know what the next environmental group is going to do. It's really more important to
us to have the broader community's support.
(From the Los Angeles Times, METRO NEWS, B3, Sunday, April 29, 2001)
Wildflowers of the Pribilof