The Coast News Group
Cardiff Elementary School is currently undergoing a remodel, but the resulting closure of a local park has left some upset. Photo by Aaron Burgin

Berkich Park’s ‘temporary’ closure under scrutiny

ENCINITAS — A chain link fence with green tarp wraps around the entire perimeter of Cardiff Elementary School, including the three acres of grassy fields and a baseball diamond along the school’s west side.

Behind the fence, construction claws demolish most of the 60-year-old campus and crews stage construction equipment for the ensuing reconstruction.

The fence is slated to surround the park land, commonly known as George Berkich Park, for the duration of construction, which the district estimates will be completed in Spring 2021.

But state and federal parks officials, who have some jurisdiction over the park, said that the district never received its approval for the nearly two-year proposed closure, which is required for closures that last longer than six months.

A spokeswoman for the school district said that the district wasn’t aware that closures of that length needed the federal and state nods, but has been “upfront” with the agencies and the public about the length of the closure.

Cardiff School District officials have been working on the campus overhaul since 2016, when voters passed Measure GG, a $22 million bond measure. The plan includes the construction of new buildings and the construction of a new multi-purpose room and outdoor terrace-style seating on land that is currently part of the district-owned George Berkich Park.
The park’s baseball field would be eliminated under the proposal, and the district would join the two grass fields, currently separated by playground equipment, to create a longer, contiguous field that could be host to two simultaneous soccer matches.
The district needs the approval of both the state and National Park Service for the project’s second phase — the multipurpose room — because of a 1993 federal grant agreement that requires the park remain in perpetuity unless the agencies endorse a boundary change. That agreement requires the district to replace the lost park land with a corresponding amount of land.
School district officials have proposed redrawing the boundary to include the school’s parking lot, which would double in size in the new plan, as well as opening the school’s garden for community use. The city of Encinitas also would have to endorse the proposal.

Much of the controversy surrounding the project has been with the second phase. But the recent development — the park closure — is part of the project’s first phase, which the City Council approved by 4-0 vote in May.

The state Office of Grants and Local Services, or OGALS, is an arm of the Department of State Parks, which administers federal grant funding issues for the National Parks Services. A spokeswoman for the state parks department said that OGALS has requested — and not received — details about the current construction, including a detailed timeline of how long the parkland would be closed.

That information is necessary for state parks officials to make a recommendation to the National Parks Services on how to proceed with the closure.

“California State Parks has had discussions with both the Cardiff School District and the city of Encinitas regarding the temporary park closure,” state parks officials wrote in a prepared statement. “As California’s grant manager for the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Grant Program, California State Parks (Office of Grants and Local Services) notified the school district and city that additional information is needed on the proposed project before the department can make a recommendation to the National Park Service on how to proceed. We have yet to receive the additional information. California State Parks cannot speculate on a proposal that has not yet been provided by the city and the school district.”

Gloria Sandoval is the state parks deputy public affairs director. When asked if the district should have commenced construction without authorization from the state department, Sandoval said that OGALS could not speculate without the information from the school district and city.

Mullen said that the district insists that the state has seen the plans, including the timeline.

“They’ve got everything from us,” she said.

Critics of the district’s project, who have sued the district to block the project on environmental grounds, have argued repeatedly that the district could not close the park grounds because it would be tantamount to unauthorized conversion of the property from its intended purposes as federally protected park land.

Eleanor Musick, a director of the opposition group Save the Park and Build the School, said that she and others informed the district about the issues with the closer as far back as 2018.

“What I can say is that … I gave them the guidelines, and it’s all in there,” Musick said. “We have been trying to educate them and inform them of the rules and they have chosen not to comply.”

Cardiff School District said it would respond to additional questions from The Coast News Wednesday morning.

Photo Caption: Cardiff Elementary School is currently undergoing a remodel, but the resulting closure of a local park has left some upset.  Photo
by Aaron Burgin

A previous version of this story included quotes from Renee Mullen, who was referred to as a Cardiff School District spokeswoman. Mullen is in fact a media contact for the district, but does not consider herself a district spokesperson. The Coast News regrets the confusion.