OCEANSIDE — A San Diego judge has ruled that the proponents of a referendum petition against the North River Farms development project did not commit fraud and forgery in their signature-gathering efforts.
In January, a lawsuit was filed alleging the people who collected signatures for a referendum petition committed fraud, forgery and misrepresentation in the process. The lawsuit also alleged important information was withheld from signers and that illegal political fundraising was conducted.
The lawsuit named City Clerk Zeb Navarro, County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu, and Oceanside residents Arleen Hammerschmidt and Kathryn Carbone as defendants. The suit was filed on behalf of resident Barbara Hazlett and backed by Integral Communities, the developer of North River Farms.
A few months after the lawsuit was filed, referendum proponents filed a special motion to strike, claiming the case was a SLAPP suit.
“A SLAPP lawsuit is a frivolous lawsuit filed to stop someone from exercising the freedom of speech,” said Everett DeLano, the attorney who represented the referendum proponents. “It has no merit, it’s just filed to stop the rights of the proponents.”
On Aug. 21, two hearings were held — one to hear three depositions of evidence against referendum proponents and the other for a motion to strike.
Judge Gregory Pollack of the San Diego Superior Court saw no evidence of forgery or fraud and granted the referendum proponents’ motion to strike in full.
“By winning, now we get to let the voters decide,” DeLano told The Coast News.
Pollack will be issuing a written ruling of his decision.
“We are very pleased that the judge saw through the empty accusations by the developer and we are looking forward now to making sure the community understands the issues involved in the upcoming ballot measure and Vote No on L,” Hammerschmidt, who was named in the lawsuit, stated in a news release.
“The motivation behind this lawsuit was clear — to intimidate members of the public and to punish those who spoke up in opposition to the project,” Carbone said in the same news release.
“I’m confident that the people of Oceanside will see the truth of what’s happening here and will support our efforts to stop this development by voting no on Measure L in November,” Carbone later told The Coast News via Facebook Messenger.
Though Integral Communities is disappointed in the court’s ruling, Principal Lance Waite said the developer respects the court’s decision and continues to believe its 585-unit housing project will benefit the city.
“We hope the many merits of an agriculturally based project that looks to solve larger community issues such as traffic, underfunded schools and housing affordability, will garner support from the greater community and urge a YES vote on Measure L,” Waite said in a statement provided to The Coast News.
According to Waite, North River Farms has committed to providing $80 million in infrastructure, over $5 million to the Oceanside Unified School District and affordable homes for “Oceanside’s critical workforce.”
The referendum will appear as Measure L on the ballot. Specifically, it will ask voters if the rezoning of approximately 176.6 acres in northeastern Oceanside (South Morro Hills) to build the North River Farms development project should be adopted.
Many residents are opposed to the housing project, citing concerns including traffic congestion, urban sprawl and its environmental impact on carbon emissions, loss of agricultural land. Additionally, many are concerned about the location of the project because of its susceptibility to fires.
Dennis Martinek, a concerned resident who is against the housing project, is frustrated by the efforts to stop the referendum.
“We should have the right to vote on this project,” Martinek said.
Another lawsuit naming the same defendants was recently filed in July on behalf of Integral Communities. The new lawsuit argues that the referendum is in violation of Senate Bill 330, a new state law that intends to address the state’s housing shortage and affordability crisis by boosting supply and expediting housing production.
DeLano will once again represent the same defendants in the new case as he did in the previous case. He also believes this new case is “much ado about nothing” like the previous case.
“I think it’s a bunch of nonsense,” DeLano said.
The new lawsuit argues that the referendum focuses on the zoning while the city’s General Plan that allows housing to be built in the proposed location. DeLano said the Supreme Court of California has already rejected that argument in the 2018 case City of Morgan Hill v. Bushey.
According to Justia.com, the Supreme Court determined that the people of a city can challenge by referendum a zoning ordinance amendment that would bring the ordinance into compliance with a change to the city’s general plan as long as the local government has other means available to make the zoning ordinance and general plan consistent with each other.
DeLano noted he doesn’t believe a decision will be made on the second case until after the vote in November.