Cardiff Elementary gets commission’s backing for first phase of renovation

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

Plans to demolish aging Cardiff Elementary School classrooms and rebuild much of the campus can move forward despite a legal battle over a school parkland area, the Encinitas Planning Commission has decided.

The vote Thursday, April 18, to support the school district’s coastal development permit request was 3-0, with Commissioner Bruce Ehlers absent and Commissioner Brett Farrow recusing himself because he lives near the Montgomery Avenue school site. Commission approval can be appealed to the City Council, and the permit also needs state Coastal Commission approval.

Plans call for the demolition of five one-story buildings and three relocatable classroom structures; construction of 10 buildings, including a multipurpose auditorium; realignment of the parking lot; the addition of perimeter fencing around the site; and reconstruction of the playing fields and playground equipment.

The project’s proposed design has divided the Cardiff community for months, and that rancor was evident Thursday, April 18, as proponents and opponents accused each other of putting children’s safety at risk, lying about project details and adding unnecessarily to the cost of the construction project. About 30 people spoke to the commission, and roughly two-thirds of them supported the district’s plans.

Supporters included Principal Julie Parker, who said her school was providing world-class educational instruction in substandard facilities, and first-grade teacher Lesly Easson, who said the roof over her classroom leaked every time it rained and most of the classroom windows couldn’t open, “except for one that doesn’t close.”

Opponents included people who had voted for the project’s $22 million bond measure, but now wished they hadn’t because they don’t like the demolition plans and the new school design, which was put together after the bond measure passed. They said the plans ought to be reworked, so that the playing fields aren’t partially covered over by buildings.

Cities don’t typically get involved in school district construction designs — school district projects are reviewed by the state. The Cardiff project is an exception for multiple reasons.

The 7.4-acre school property, which has sweeping views of the ocean and is considered among the choicest school locations in the state, falls within the state’s coastal zone, thus requiring a development permit approved by the city and the state Coastal Commission.

And, there’s the parkland conflict. The playing fields area is named “George Berkich Park” in honor of a former school principal, but it’s not a city-owned park. Instead, it’s school district property. However, in the early 1990s, the school district and the city signed paperwork declaring that the playing fields area was to remain as perpetual open space. That allowed the city and school district to obtain a grant.

The open space preservation agreement, which was forgotten for years, resurfaced recently as an issue in the battle over the school renovation plans. In order to put the school’s future multipurpose building on the edge of the property, part of the parkland area will be lost. Project opponents argue that’s unacceptable and filed a lawsuit last month to stop the project.

On Thursday, April 18, project opponent Eleanor Musick told commissioners they ought to postpone their vote on the school district’s permit request given the pending lawsuit, which she said would likely result in a redesign of the construction plans.

“There are too many unresolved issues at this time,” she said.

School district officials said they were in negotiations with the state’s Office of Grants and Local Services to resolve the parkland boundary issue and believed an acreage adjustment would eventually be permitted.

City employees said the first phase of the proposed construction project wasn’t located within the parkland area and thus could move forward. Commissioners backed staff’s recommendation to approve the permit request.

“It’s a nicely designed school (project),” Commissioner Kevin Doyle said before the vote. “I wish we didn’t have this park complication here, because it is a complication.”

Doyle said he had “major reservations” about the construction plans because of the parkland boundary line issue, and commission Chairman Glenn O’Grady said he shared his concerns, saying the conflict is “not a dead issue.”

Commissioner Al Apuzzo asked the school district representatives if there was money available to pay later for a redesign of the plans, if required. After hearing an affirmative, Apuzzo noted that it definitely was possible to create a different design later, but said nearby homeowners might not like a new plan any better.

The current design calls for the new school buildings to be low and single-story to reduce ocean view impacts to neighboring properties, but the school district could legally build taller, two-story structures and thus cover less of the property’s ground area, he noted.

--- Barbara Henry is a freelance writer.