ENCINITAS — The legal tug-of-war between Cardiff School District and local organization Save the Park and Build the School continues with a court ruling that may push construction efforts well beyond the coming school year.
On July 20, a federal judge ruled in favor of local organization Save the Park and Build the School by granting a preliminary injunction and temporarily halting construction on several buildings on the Cardiff Elementary campus — within the original boundaries of George Berkich Park — until August 31.
The restricted area includes the auditorium and a portion of the school’s parking lot.
This injunction follows a previous lawsuit settled between Cardiff School District and Save the Park this past spring and a second, more recent lawsuit filed in early June.
According to the order, the injunction will be in force until the National Park Service (NPS) and California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) respond to the group’s aforementioned June 12 lawsuit, which alleges both agencies’ final approval of the boundary conversion of Cardiff School playfields continues to violate state and federal environmental laws, namely California Environmental Quality Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.
U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns justified his decision in part by speculating on the resolution of the June 12 lawsuit.
“[Save the Park] is likely to succeed in showing the NPS failed to properly consider whether the replacement property the District offered meets the criteria of the NPS regulations,” Burns wrote.
Burns’ decision noted the inequity between George Berkich Park’s longstanding purpose as a publicly accessible recreational space and the school district’s proposed use for space, parking and additional classroom space.
“Here the [Cardiff School District’s] proposed parking lot [boundaries infringing upon the original Berkich Park] will not replace another parking lot… it instead replaces grassy parkland,” Burns wrote. “A parking lot simply does not ‘meet recreational needs’ that are ‘like in magnitude and impact’ to the recreational purposes served by a grassy parkland.”
Additionally, Burns placed his decision in the greater context of a year fraught with possible school closures due to coronavirus.
“Considering the slim likelihood that schools in San Diego County will be open for in-person learning in the fall and the high likelihood that further NPS action will clarify the issue in the next few weeks, the Court finds the public interest favors issuance of an injunction, if only temporarily.”
In a press release following the court’s decision, Cardiff School District Board President Siena Randall voiced the district’s disappointment.
“We are extremely disappointed to have yet another unnecessary delay,” Randall said. “NPS’s approval of the boundary adjustment was a result of a comprehensive process that took two years to complete and included a thorough evaluation by NPS and extensive due diligence by the District. This is not about saving a park and sadly, it continues to cost us precious time and money.”
However, Burns acknowledged the likelihood of some financial harm to the district due to the preliminary injunction.
“Counterbalanced against the environmental concerns is the economic hard the District will suffer from construction delays. But economic harm does not generally outweigh the environmental harms protected by the [Land and Water Conservation Fund Act].”
Furthermore, Burns acknowledged that Save the Park seeks to rebuild the now-demolished Berkich Park, suggesting the costs and responsibility could lay on the District and City of Encinitas.
In speaking to the Coast News, Eleanor Musick, a Save the Park spokesperson, expressed her optimism after the court’s ruling. Musick also requested The Coast News share the nonprofit’s website which describes the group’s goals and provides access to relevant court documents.
In response to the preliminary injunction granted on July 20, Save the Park wrote, “of particular note is the Court’s statement that the [NPS] approval of the District’s proposed park boundary adjustment was ‘hasty, arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.'”
“Given the judge’s strong criticism of the NPS approval, Save the Park’s expectation and hope is that NPS will revoke its approval and require the District to revise its plans for expansion into Berkich Park,” Save the Park stated.
“Looking at a map of Cardiff, it is easy to see that the Berkich Park at Cardiff School is one of the last few open spaces left in town,” Save the Park stated. “Why would we pave over this park, especially if there is no good reason to do so? Once a parking lot or building is constructed, the open space can never be reclaimed.”
As construction continues amidst mounting legal cases, families of students enrolled at Cardiff School have also sought to make their voices heard, creating the organization “Build Cardiff School,” protesting and gathering support for the proposed construction.
“Our highest priority is ensuring that our schools can safely operate for our students and staff as we prepare to begin the new school year,” Superintendent Jill Vinson wrote in an Aug. 8 email addressed to Cardiff School District families. “We are closely monitoring the terms of the preliminary injunction and any resultant effects that could disrupt the smooth ingress/egress of students on the Cardiff School campus.”
According to the district and in accordance with the preliminary injunction, construction will continue on other sections of the school’s campus, including classroom buildings and other improvements within the old grant boundary line, such as infiltration basins and grass restoration on playfields.