Save Berkich Park group sues Cardiff School District

The opposition group Save the Park Build the School put up story poles to show how new construction will impact George Berkich Park.

A group of Cardiff residents continues to clash with the Cardiff School District over its reconstruction plans for Cardiff School and its impacts on George Berkich Park and its ocean views.

On March 15, the group Save the Park and Build the School filed a lawsuit against the district alleging an inadequate environmental impact report (EIR).

According to the district’s EIR, the project “does not negatively impact any existing or future public recreational uses of the site when not needed for school purposes.” The lawsuit argues that the EIR failed to adequately evaluate the project’s impacts.

“The project completely overhauls the design and appearance of George Berkich Park, which is an important and well-loved community resource,” the lawsuit states. “Such a change would negatively affect the character of the surrounding community.”

Expanding a school campus into an existing park which provides one of the largest open, unobstructed spaces in the area to view the Pacific Ocean would indisputably have significant visual impacts.”

Opponents uncovered that the park area of the school site is subject to a United States Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) agreement entered into between the district and the City of Encinitas in 1993 that requires that the property within the boundary map be maintained as public outdoor recreation “in perpetuity.”

The lawsuit contends that the EIR violates the California Environmental Quality Act as the requirements for the LWCF conversion have not yet been met.

A district rendering shows the configuration of the new school. Courtesy

The school district has been working with the Office of Grants and Local Services (OGALs), the department within California State Parks that administers the LWCF agreement, as well as the National Park Service in proposing a conversion that will result in an adjustment to the boundary that they believe will preserve the public recreational use of portions of the school property.

As both parties must agree on the conversion, the adjustment is expected to come before Encinitas City Council on April 17.

The lawsuit is an extension of an opposition effort in which over 250 people have signed a petition to save the park and to keep the district from “paving paradise.”

“Historically, the land has always been a park,” said Tricia Smith, an opponent and life-long Cardiff resident. “We’re fine with them building the school but build on the school land and don’t take our park land.”

Construction on the new Cardiff School is set to begin this summer and Superintendent Jill Vinson said she believed there is no reason that the city should not approve the reasonable solution.

“The campaign of misinformation needs to be corrected,” said Randy Johnson, the district’s Measure GG bond manager. “This is not a park. It’s district-owned property. It’s 100 percent owned by the district without any deed restrictions or easements on it.”

Cardiff School was founded in 1913 on land donated to the district by J. Frank Cullen. According to the district, the site is not legally designated as a park—the portion of the property that consists of the school’s playfields was named George Berkich Park to honor a former principal of the school.

In 1993, the city of Encinitas and the district received a grant for less than $160,000 from the LWCF and created a boundary that identified as a recreation area. While they are partners on the agreement, Johnson said the city has never paid for any field repairs, maintenance, utilities, water or contributed funds to improve play structures—he said the district receives a field use fee from the city, however, the city charges the district a fee to schedule their programs on the joint-use space.

The district was not informed of the LWCF agreement until the fall of 2017—the agreement had fallen off the institutional memory of anyone at the district and the city.

“This agreement didn’t surface until people in our group were upset by the plan and wanted to keep the school in its existing footprint and not destroy the park,” said Daniel Littrell, a school neighbor and member of the opposition group.

As the district was not aware of the agreement, they had already made improvements to 10 percent of the recreation area without obtaining OGALS and National Park Service approval, causing the district and the city to fall out of compliance with the terms of the original agreement.

Per the agreement, boundary conversions are only permitted with the substitution of another recreation property of equal fair market value and of “reasonable equivalent usefulness and location.” As neither the district nor the city is capable of providing such equivalent recreation space as a replacement, their only option is to pursue a boundary adjustment.

“We’re already out of compliance,” said Board President Sienna Randall. “(The boundary adjustment) will bring us back into compliance.”

Johnson said the district has worked closely with OGALS for almost a year to prepare a proposal for the conversion. He said they received preliminary findings from the National Park Service in October 2018 that the proposed conversion would be acceptable.

The “retrofit” of the boundary doesn’t work for the opposition as it includes asphalt spaces, a paved driveway and parking lot as recreational space.

“Asphalt and a school drop-off zone is not going to enhance public outdoor recreational experience,” Smith said. “A parking lot is not equivalent to park space.”

On their own time, the group has twice put up their own story poles to show how much of the park will be taken up by the new building and parking lot.

“Our position is that that the city is bound by this agreement and that open space is not a good swap with a parking lot,” Smith said. “The city has an obligation to do what’s right for the city…This is protected land in our community and park land is hard to come by, we should hold onto it. We shouldn’t let this happen because of a mistake.”

“There’s no real reason to do it, the park is ours to enjoy,” Littrell said.

The district counters that with the boundary adjustment, they are increasing the net usable space by approximately 6,830 square feet and increasing the space within the boundary by 2,047 square feet as well as making enhancements to the recreational space.

The existing softball/baseball field would be converted to a soccer/multi-use field. The dirt infield is proposed to be covered with grass, however, the backstop will remain. The plan is to create a more contiguous green space—an existing play apparatus bifurcates the field areas and creates issues with supervision so that students cannot use that half of the park during the school day.

A concrete terraced seating area would be built adjacent to an outdoor plaza off of the multi-use building and they plan to add two picnic areas.

A portion of the land is currently fenced off for use as a school garden, however, the district proposes to make it accessible to the public in non-school hours and to establish a community-based garden program.

The project would increase the number of parking spaces in the parking lot along Montgomery Avenue from 28 spaces to 45 spaces. It would also increase the pick-up/drop-off area to allow approximately 10 cars to queue instead of two, getting more cars off the street.

The lawsuit alleges that with Measure GG, the district engaged in a “bait and switch for the purpose of securing the taxpayer’s commitment to $22 million in funding for its project, the scope and gravity of which was concealed from the public.”

The lawsuit contends that the Cardiff School project was defined as a modernization and reconstruction rather than the demolition of buildings and an expansion of the school’s footprint.

In 2016, voters passed GG with 66 percent of the vote but as one comment on the EIR stated: “I may have supported Measure GG but did not vote to make the park smaller.”

“I am so excited and happy about the redevelopment of the school. But it should not be at the expense of the park,” wrote resident Juliana Risner in her comments on the draft EIR. “You can rebuild a premier elementary school without encroaching onto this lovely space and I urge you to do so.”

Superintendent Vinson said building a beautiful school for the community has always been the goal. Allegations of a “bait and switch” are troubling to hear as the rebuild was such a long time coming and so much work went into getting a bond on the ballot and gathering community input throughout the entire process, she said.

“There’s been a lot of community involvement,” Randall said. “It’s a small community and the school is very important to the community.”

While it did not specifically use the words demolition or expansion the bond language did outline a long list of work planned for the school that included replacing outdated classrooms that are between 55-65 years old, constructing a new multi-purpose room, replacing aging portables, upgrading and improving playgrounds and play fields for school and community use, and making “health, safety, and security improvements, such as improve student drop-off and pick-up areas.”

After the bond passed, the bond implementation team formed in February 2017 and the district held workshops with the community before any design work began, Johnson said.

“The guiding principles were developed: prioritize learning spaces, create a safe and secure environment and prioritize green space and views,” Johnson said.

Program needs dictated the placement of the new buildings—Johnson said it was important to keep the multi-purpose room at the front of campus, close to the parking lot and allowing for the building to be secured independently for community use.

A conceptual plan was released in August 2017 and the district heard more feedback to maximize the field as well as neighbor concerns about the buildings blocking the views to the ocean. Johnson said to lessen the impact of buildings in that area, they went back and revised the plan, moving the kindergarten and extended-day program to the other side of campus.

The multi-purpose room location remained and the district still heard some concerns about the viewshed. Opponents have asked that the school build the multi-purpose room somewhere else, not on the park area and not obstructing views of the ocean.

Johnson said they explored many different ways for the campus to be organized but nothing made sense programmatically—other options created safety concerns and placing buildings on the higher points of the site would impact other neighbors’ views.

The city does not have a view ordinance—the allowed building height is 30 feet and the multi-purpose building will be less than 22 feet tall and it is located at the lowest elevation of the site.

“The multi-purpose room is lower but there is, unfortunately, some views that are impacted,” Johnson said. “All alternatives will have impacts and we’re doing our best to address each of those issues.”

Vinson said the conflict between the district and the opponent group is disappointing.

“I’m proud of the board’s vision for the rebuild and the facility master plan. I’m proud of the process to get us to a really great logistical plan for this school,” Vinson said. “We hope that everyone can look back and see a school that is a jewel for the community for a long time to come. It’s an awesome responsibility and we haven’t taken this lightly. It’s a special place.”

Littrell and Smith said the opposition group is not trying to stop the school. They hope that the district does build a school that the community deserves but they do not want to see any impact on the Berkich Park they know.

“It’s a four-acre park and they are taking one-fourth,” Smith said. “We’re fighting really hard for an acre.”