Court orders all construction stopped at Cardiff School

A rendering of the new Cardiff School.

Construction has halted on the new Cardiff School as San Diego County Superior Court ruled in favor of the Save the Park and Build the School opposition group’s complaint.

Earlier this year, Save the Park filed a lawsuit against the Cardiff School District alleging an inadequate environmental impact report (EIR) for the Cardiff School rebuild. The lawsuit contends that the EIR failed to adequately evaluate the impact of the school project, which “completely overhauls the design and appearance of George Berkich Park, which is an important and well-loved community resource.”

On Nov. 18, the Cardiff School District received a ruling from the court that granted a preliminary injunction and made certain other legal findings on Save the Park’s claims regarding compliance with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and “taxpayer waste”; the allegation that the district “breached the accountability requirements set forth in Measure GG by constructing improvements not authorized by Measure GG”, the $22 million bond measure funding the rebuild that was approved by nearly 66 percent of Cardiff voters in 2016.

On Dec. 2, an ex parte hearing was held to seek clarification of the court’s ruling on the plaintiffs’ claims and Judge Earl H. Maas III confirmed all aspects of his ruling, stopping the district from proceeding with construction of improvements including new classrooms, a music room, a makerspace/art lab, an outdoor assembly seating area and more until further order of the court, court of appeal or a completion of a full and adequate EIR.

“Should Save the Park prevail as predicted at trial, the district could be permanently enjoined from building these improvements using Measure GG funds and could be required to disgorge any bond funds that were already expended,” said Eleanor Musick of Save the Park and Build the School.

In a release, the district said it is disappointed in the Dec. 2 ruling and it will add to “mounting legal fees and project costs” for the Cardiff School rebuild.

“This decision does not change the fact that the district continues to work in good faith to deliver Cardiff voters the new school they were promised as part of this bond measure,” said Cardiff School District Superintendent Jill Vinson. “We stand behind this project and the priority that it places on student safety and the educational programs of the district.”

The Cardiff campus was demolished in June to make way for new school buildings to replace buildings that were 55-65 years old, an increased parking and queuing area and reconfigured playfields that include a community garden. Kindergarten and first grade students are located in temporary classrooms at Cardiff School, second and third grades are now at the Ada Harris School campus. Construction of the new school was slated to be complete by spring 2021.

“Despite their stated purpose and long-term public position that they want to ‘Save the Park and Build the School’, the plaintiffs, who consist of a small group of neighbors, sought and obtained a court order directing the district to cease all construction work on the entire Cardiff School rebuild project,” wrote the district in a release. “This is the first time the plaintiffs sought to halt and delay construction of the new school buildings that are outside of the playfields and grant boundary.”

“The district accuses Save the Park of misrepresenting their prior-stated position of only wanting to save the park given that they have now been granted a preliminary injunction covering the entire project,” countered Musick. “In fact, preserving Berkich Park remains Save the Park’s ultimate goal. While Save the Park has made several attempts to engage the district in discussions to resolve the dispute, the district has steadfastly refused to consider any compromise.

“Save the Park hopes that this latest ruling will provide sufficient incentive for the district to participate in meaningful settlement discussions.”

While historically used as a park, according to the district the site on San Elijo Avenue and Montgomery Avenue 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.

The rebuild plan calls for an encroachment into the playfield, however, the district maintains that the encroachment is less than 10 percent of the overall project site and “keeps the vast majority of the playfields intact while adding various enhancements to improve its functionality for school and community use.”

The opposition has countered that too much park land is being traded for the multipurpose room, parking lot and asphalt spaces, as well as expanding the school into “one of the largest open, unobstructed spaces in the area to view the Pacific Ocean.”

For the last three years, the district has been working to resolve an issue stemming from a federal grant accepted more than 25 years ago by the City of Encinitas and the district to improve the school’s playfields. The district was not informed of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Grant (LWCF) agreement until the fall of 2017—the agreement had fallen off the institutional memory of anyone at the district and the city and was uncovered by the opposition group.

The LWCF grant language precluded the district from building any structures within the boundaries established by the agreement so the district went through the lengthy process of a boundary adjustment that would allow them to build as well as preserve the public recreational use of portions of the property.

On Nov. 25, the district obtained approval for the boundary adjustment from the California Department of Parks and Recreation Office of Grants and Local Services (OGALS) and, on Nov. 27, it received conditional approval from the National Park Service, subject to two conditions that are in the process of being completed.

According to the release, the district intends to ask the court to reconsider its decision in light of the state and federal approvals that were just obtained, however, Musick said that the court’s findings with respect to CEQA compliance are not dependent on the boundary adjustment.

The district said that it will continue to evaluate additional legal options that would allow it to resume construction on the school buildings.

“The district’s priority has been and will always be the students,” said Cardiff School District Board President Siena Randall. “We will continue to put their best interests above the interests of others that have attempted to impede this project.”