EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include quotes from Cardiff School District officials.
ENCINITAS — Opponents of a proposed redesign of the Cardiff Elementary School campus have filed a lawsuit to suspend the project until the Cardiff School District performs a more thorough assessment of its environmental impacts.
But the school district, while not directly addressing the lawsuit, said it is standing by the project and the process it took to arriving at the proposed redesign.
“It’s been a very public process, a democratic process, and everything has been above board and transparent,” school board member Siena Randall said. “I feel confident as a board member and proud of the work that has been done here. All of this work has been done with a positive outcome for the kids in mind.”
Officials said opponents don’t represent the majority of residents, who approve of the district’s plans.
“When the vast majority like the changes that are being proposed, why should the community settle for less than what they have requested through an extensive, lengthy design process because a few people don’t like the outcome of the process?” Randall asked. “The vast majority of residents are fine with it, there are only a few people who aren’t.”
The lawsuit filing is the latest in an escalating battle between the school district and a group of residents who have opposed the proposed overhaul since drawings of the redesign were made public in 2017.
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 amphitheater 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.
A group known as the Cardiff Preservation Society launched a campaign called “Save the Park and Build the School” nearly two years ago.
First, opponents focused on the impacts the redesign would have on the community. But in 2018, they began arguing that the school district’s plans run afoul of a 1993 funding agreement between the district, the Department of State Parks and the U.S. National Parks Service that requires the land to remain a park in perpetuity in exchange for the grant funding unless the state and federal agencies sign off on a change.
As it turns out, the district said it also learned that a campus renovation in 2002 ran afoul of the agreement, as part of two campus buildings are encroaching on the original park boundaries.
The district’s plan, officials said, would address the current and previous boundary concerns and bring the district into compliance with the state and federal requirements.
Opponents in the lawsuit argue that the district’s position doesn’t take into account other alternatives that wouldn’t include further encroachment on the park, such as filing a retroactive appeal to accept the 2002 boundary changes.
“If the No Project Alternative were to be selected, Respondent could still regain and maintain compliance with the…Agreement by filing for a retroactive conversion approval,” the lawsuit states.
The other alternatives, opponents said, the district hasn’t considered was demolishing the campus and rebuilding it on the same footprint.
Back in December, an official with the Department of State Parks said that the agency was “working closely with the school district and the city of Encinitas to guide them through the (agreement) processes for changing the boundary,” but offered no comment on the redesign itself.
The school district has proposed redrawing the park’s boundaries to include the redesigned campus’ proposed parking lot to compensate for the park land lost in the construction, which the Preservation Society has panned as an unequal swap.
“The School wants to try to convince the NPS and the State Parks Service to swap the grassy open fields that are intensely used by the community and the school with views to the ocean for an asphalted parking lot and drop off lanes of the School,” wrote Tricia Smith, the mother of Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who is one of the key opponents of the project. “There are a large group of citizens who strongly object to the swap of asphalt for open space.”
But district officials said that the state parks Office of Grants and Local Services, which administers the boundary swap decisions, suggested the board draw the boundaries to include the entire parking lot.
Randy Peterson, the district’s contract bond program manager, said adding the parking lot to the boundaries makes sense because it would serve recreation area’s users, including soccer teams that use the fields on weekends.
“There’s an added benefit because you are providing a level of parking on site which allows people beyond walking and biking to come and use the recreation areas,” Peterson said.
The city of Encinitas, which was also party to the agreement, is required to endorse the proposal before state and federal officials make a determination. Opponents said the city postponed the decision from March 20 until mid-April, while school board officials said the item was never placed on the March agenda, but would take it up April 17.
Peterson said thus far the district has received nothing but “positive” responses from state officials and is confident the city will approve the project.
Opponents, however, say the Sierra Club recently weighed in against the school district’s proposal in a recent letter, which it said “completely undermines the goals and principals of the (funding agreement).”
Peterson said the district met with Sierra Club officials and said they were told the club would be revising its position after addressing what they called “incorrect information” given to the group by opponents.
Save the Park and Build the School filed the lawsuit on March 8. It alleges that the proposal, and the environmental impact report fall short of several key areas of the state Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.
The project, the group argues, would lead to the removal of 47 trees — some of which are healthy — block coastal views, potentially impact the historical Little Brick Building, which sits on the park’s northwestern edge and alters the park, which they argue damages the community.
“The Project completely overhauls the design and appearance of George Berkich Park,
which is an important and well-loved community resource,” the lawsuit states. “Such a change would negatively affect the character of the surrounding community. Furthermore, the change in layout of the school will change the view residents and other visitors to the area have of the Pacific Ocean.
“As a seaside town, Cardiff is admired for its ocean views and property near the school is coveted and valuable because of these views,” the lawsuit continues. “Obstructing views of the Pacific Ocean for the public and the residents is not in alignment with the basic character of the Cardiff community.”
The group also argues that the approval of the environmental exemptions was premature given the district had not secured approval for the boundary change from state and federal officials.
Peterson and school district officials said they performed an EIR because the group threatened to sue if they didn’t, even though the officials believed the project was exempt from the full-blown environmental study.
Opposition to the project began in earnest in late 2017, when the group of residents cried foul at the district’s proposed redesign. They packed an October 2017 school board meeting urging the district to reconsider the proposal.
Originally, the opposition focused on the aesthetics and the taking of parkland, as well as concerns that the project did not match the description given by the school district in the bond proposal.
It wasn’t until 2018 when opponents learned the district had to receive approval to change the boundaries that they focused their efforts on blocking the change.
Since that time, opposition to the project has grown. A recent petition against the expansion has more than 250 signatures, and a number of residents have spoken at board meetings to express concerns with the project.
Since 2017, the district has made several changes to the original design, including backing off the original plan of building both the multi-purpose room and kindergarten classrooms on park space.
It also attempted to address concerns about the floor plan — which opponents argued was too sprawled — the loss of green space, trees and views. The final iteration of the plan, released in May 2018, proposed fewer of the large courtyards than in the previous proposals and relocated the multipurpose room on a lower section of current field so that it didn’t impact views as much as the first plan.
Superintendent Jill Vinson said the district has reached a point where it is unwilling to compromise any more, and any further changes would jeopardize campus safety. The district has sought to move the multi-purpose room from its current location to keep visitors from walking through campus to access it.
“Especially when (the compromise) is only addressing a handful of people,” Vinson said.