ENCINITAS — A local property owner has sued the city of Encinitas, claiming the city’s failure to adequately respond to years of severe flooding in Leucadia has resulted in significant damage to his rental homes and personal belongings.
James Gates, owner of two properties on Europa Street, alleges inverse condemnation (when a government agency damages private property while providing public services) and has claimed the city’s negligence and inaction over the years have created a nuisance and dangerous condition of public property.
According to his attorney, Vincent Bartolotta, Gates’ properties are located within a floodplain area bounded by Batiquitos Lagoon, Beacon’s Beach, railroad tracks and Union Street. After heavy rainstorms, the floodplain renders portions of the Europa properties uninhabitable, hurting Gates’ ability to earn income from renting the units as long-term multifamily dwellings.
“We own property within the city limits. We are supposed to be able to use that property or its beneficial purposes unencumbered,” Bartolotta said. “In this case, (the property) is encumbered by the consistent flooding that the city ignores to repair.”
According to the complaint, despite longstanding awareness of persistent flooding in Leucadia, the city’s installation and operation of drainage pipes and floodwater pumps have proven insufficient to mitigate excess stormwater in the area.
Specifically, the city installed a drainage pipe and sluice-gate valve to drain excess stormwater westward from the east side of the railroad tracks. However, stormwater has continued to accumulate near Leucadia Roadside Park, approximately 500 feet north of Gates’ properties on Europa Street, the complaint reads.
“Former members of the City Council of Encinitas, as well as former civil engineers for the city, are on record stating that the drainage pipes and water pumps are insufficient to meet the city’s drainage needs,” the complaint reads. “…The drainage pipes and water pumps are improperly maintained and operated or are otherwise insufficient to adequately remove the water and prevent flooding in the Leucadia area. In fact, the city’s employees and/or contractors at times needed to watch the weather and then manually turn on the water pumps.”
The lawsuit highlights a severe storm on New Year’s Eve in 2022 that inundated the coastal areas of San Diego County, including Encinitas, resulting in “historic precipitation and flooding events.”
The complaint alleges that despite the risk of flooding, the city failed to take adequate preventive measures ahead of the rainstorm, leaving open the sluice gate and drainage pipes, which allowed stormwater to accumulate near the Europa properties.
The lawsuit further claims the city neglected to activate water pumps during the winter storm, exacerbating the flooding and causing significant damage to Gates’ property and belongings, rendering the Europa properties uninhabitable for eight weeks.
In January, Gates initially filed a public liability claim with the city, but the claim was rejected in March, leading to the subsequent legal action. The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages, attorney fees, costs, pre-judgment interest, and any other relief deemed appropriate by the court.
Land use attorneys have previously suggested the city of Encinitas could be liable for property damages under the inverse condemnation theory established in Locklin v. City of Lafayette.
Phillip L. Pillsbury, who litigated the Locklin case on behalf of the plaintiffs, and land use attorney Bradford Kuhn, both told The Coast News that the city could be liable for damages caused to downstream properties when water is unnaturally diverted, even if it is accidental and within the same natural watershed.
History and future of Leucadia drainage
As previously reported by The Coast News, the history of Leucadia’s flooding issues dates back nearly 40 years, when the city, upon incorporation in 1986, inherited the county’s original infrastructure along Coast Highway 101.
According to residents and city officials, further developments in the early 2000s compounded the issue, including an ill-conceived 24-inch nuisance drain as part of the Leucadia Storm Drain Project. The drainage pipe was intended to manage Leucadia’s small ponding areas west of Coast Highway.
The city later connected this system to water sources beyond its intended capacity, overloading the drain and aggravating the flooding problem. In 2012, a San Diego County Grand Jury released a report stating Leucadia’s 24-inch pipe was too small to meet the city’s drainage needs.
Another bone of contention is the city’s alleged mismanagement of the sluice-gate valve, which was installed as part of the Leucadia Storm Drain Project. Since its construction, the city has left the valve slightly open to avoid potential flooding of the Vulcan-Union intersection and nearby mobile home community.
However, the city engineer who designed the Leucadia Storm Drain Project said the sluice gate was explicitly designed to be kept closed to keep Leucadia’s inlets from being overwhelmed during a major storm event.
Lastly, the city’s handling of flooding at Leucadia Roadside Park involves pumping excess stormwater through an 8-inch elevated pipe over a bluff at Beacon’s Beach, drawing criticism from activists and city leaders over its limited effectiveness and potential environmental risks.
Previously, the city has argued that diverting untreated stormwater over the bluff falls within the same natural watershed, eliminating the need for additional monitoring or treatment.
The city has recently taken steps to address Leucadia’s drainage infrastructure problems, at least partially. Earlier this year, the Encinitas City Council awarded construction contracts for projects in Segment C, the final phase of Leucadia Streetscape, hoping to bring upgrades to the city’s roadways and stormwater infrastructure.
In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city $4 million to install 1.5 miles of new stormwater mainline underneath the highway to help reduce the intensity and frequency of flooding in northern Leucadia. The grant will only cover a portion of the storm drain pipe along the 2.5-mile stretch of road.
The proposed drainage work includes installing a series of reinforced concrete storm drain pipes underneath the highway for additional storage capacity, catch basins and curb inlets along the roadway and at Leucadia Roadside Park, and “green street” or biofiltration elements to help filter stormwater runoff and improve water quality, according to city documents.
The City Council opted to finish the aboveground Leucadia Streetscape work before completing the subsurface drainage and stormwater improvements, which include the installation of several underground pipes and could require tearing up newly paved areas at a significantly higher cost down the road.