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This Way to the Egress

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

November 10 -- Amid accusations of animosity and threatened litigation, a four-hour debate that overwhelmed Tuesday night’s City Council agenda culminated in a short-term fix to Santa Monica College’s Bundy campus parking dilemma, as a permanent resolution continued to recede into the distance.

When the dust finally settled, the council passed a unanimous motion temporarily opening up Airport Avenue to student traffic exiting the satellite campus parking lots in exchange for a traffic light on Bundy Avenue and a waiver by the College to its claims to an implicit easement – a waiver that has not been agreed upon by the College.

Nearly 40 partisans spoke for hours, College supporters outnumbering opponents two to one, while more than 30 students in black and white SMC t-shirts packed the gallery where they stood up on cue as College advocates made their points.

As tempers flared during the night, Council member Bobby Shriver finally lost his patience with the recalcitrant issue that muscled a long-awaited report on homelessness off the night’s agenda.

“This affects people who are mentally ill living in the street with gangrene and every conceivable form of pain and suffering,” an outraged Shriver protested.

“This thing has been…consuming hours of time every other month,” Shriver said. “I am going to go nuts and do whatever I can think of… to prevent this issue from coming back and monopolizing these council meetings.”

Bundy campus parking has become a black hole that has drawn in leaders from every local neighborhood organization, city leaders from Los Angeles and Santa Monica and the full force of Santa Monica College imploding over a block-long easement that could become the focus of a lawsuit between the City and the College.

Time and again, the debate returned to a letter from Attorney Chris Harding who wrote to the City on behalf of the College alerting them to the College’s potential claim to an implied easement, based on the historical use of the property.

The City had reviewed the letter in closed session Tuesday night, and Council member Ken Genser asked a number of College officials if they were threatening to sue the City if the council didn’t do what they wanted.

“I think you mischaracterize the letter,” Harding responded. It represents “a good faith effort to avoid litigation,” he said.

In fact, the October 26 letter asks for an agreement with the City to allow the College to lay claim to its rights to the easement after the statute of limitations expires this coming February.

“These agreements will allow the parties to continue exploring potential voluntary resolution of this matter without the added pressures inherent in litigation,” the letter states.

The letter was sent just days before an emergency meeting was called by Los Angeles City Council member Bill Rosendahl, who was alarmed by Bundy students making left turns in and out of the campus driveway.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Rosendahl said. He told the Council Tuesday night that he would “aggressively pursue” a half signal at the Bundy campus driveway, which he hoped would be ready within six months.

This was the same offer he made at the meeting on October 28, at which City officials said they would recommend at Tuesday night’s Council meeting opening up Airport Avenue to student traffic as part of a tentative “short-short-term” agreement.

But City staff recommended nixing the plan, largely because legal staff had advised that any modification to Donald Douglas Loop – the easement students would drive on to get between the campus lots and Airport Avenue – might trigger California Environment Quality Act (CEQA) requirements.

“This is a very environmentally minded city,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the council.

“If an opponent of a particular project believes that CEQA requirements have not been met, the opponent of the project can file a lawsuit,” Moutrie said.

Well over a dozen members of community groups who have fought the spread of college traffic into their neighborhoods sat in the audience listening to Moutrie.

Harding met Moutrie’s objections with the observation that if the City wanted to raise the specter of CEQA every time a road was repaired, they ought to think twice about the implications for their own “minimal street improvements.”

“I can’t imagine a simpler fix,” Harding said of access on Douglas Loop “If this sets a precedent,” he said, “You will slow down virtually every minor capital project you have in this city for years to come.”

The emotional crisis of the meeting came when former Mayor Denny Zane, a consultant to the College, prefaced his remarks to the council with the phrase, “If you could for a moment, I’d like to ask you to set aside for some of you your historic animosities toward the College.”

Zane’s characterization outraged Council member Richard Bloom.

“Do you think it’s fair to accuse members of this council to have historic animosity” after they’ve spent months trying to hammer out an agreement among the cities and the College, Bloom asked.

“I will tell you how I feel about that after you do it,” Zane answered.

As the council settled down to crafting a motion, some voiced mistrust of the College’s methods.

“I’m highly skeptical of how we got backed into this situation,” Council member Kevin McKeown said, although he added that he was anxious to address the need for student safety.

The college was acting “cavalierly,” according to Genser, who worried that the college might extend their “preposterous claim” to the Douglas Loop easement in the future.

And Bloom and Shriver both felt their duty lay with their constituency, who’d sent them “a whale of a lot of mail,” as Shriver said.

“They’re all against it, and there’s a lot of them,” Shriver said.

But Council member Bob Holbrook, who’d listened without speaking much throughout the contentious meeting, turned heads on the dais with his question: “Do you really want this to be an issue going into next fall’s election?”

At that, the council was ready to get to work.

After asking staff to craft language that would call for the College to waive its claims to the implicit easement and to indemnify the City for the College’s temporary use of the easement, the measure passed unanimously.

The measure restricts exiting vehicles to a right turn on Airport Avenue, so traffic will not exit directly into Sunset Park and is contingent on Rosendahl’s ability to fulfill his promise to get the traffic light installed before the end of the Spring semester.

It also extends for six months the use of Beach Parking Lot 5 for the College’s shuttle bus, while rerouting the shuttle off Barnard Way, a concession to Ocean Park Association residents, who added their numbers to the fracas Tuesday night.

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