ENCINITAS — In a shocking reversal on September 11, the National Park Service (NPS) has rescinded its approval of several disputed Cardiff Elementary School construction elements, further halting construction and invalidating its own decision four months prior.
In response to a second lawsuit filed by Save The Park on June 12, the federal agency reversed its conversion approval of select areas of George Berkich Park to non-recreational uses, stating it will continue to work with the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to resolve the issue.
The three areas in question, the hard court, parking lot, and northwest garden areas, are now determined to be improper conversion replacement property, though the National Park Service had previously approved those areas.
Immediately following the agency’s most recent decision, Judge Larry A. Burns denied Cardiff School District’s request to remove a preliminary injunction issued by the U.S. District Court of Southern California on July 20, prohibiting construction within the park boundary lines.
The two decisions issued on September 11 follow more than a year of legal battles between the District and the local group. In an email to Cardiff Elementary families on Monday, Sept 14, despite weeks of “will they or won’t they” legal battles, families were informed students will be able to attend school in 2-3 weeks time.
“We are astounded by the actions of NPS,” Superintendent Jill Vinson wrote. “The District followed the explicit guidance of both NPS and DPR through a lengthy process that resulted in an unconditional approval from both agencies.”
The District continued, stating, “a temporary and intrusive ADA accessible walkway and modifications to the unfinished parking lot and drop off/pick up area will be implemented as an interim measure,” thus allowing the students to return to school.
According to Vinson, zero facts regarding the project have changed since the original approval in April.
“This is a complete about-face from what these agencies have communicated to us for the last two and half years as we have worked to regain compliance with the (Land and Water Conservation Fund) grant requirements,” Vinson said.
Cardiff School Board President Siena Randall said no result from any lawsuit “will change or distract us from our commitment to completing the rebuilding of the school and meet the goal of providing Cardiff students with a safe and modern learning environment that the community voted for. The safety and education of the students remain our priorities and we will find the right path that allows us to move forward.”
The opposing organization, Save the Park, was pleased with both decisions, acknowledging “these are extraordinarily difficult times and STP regrets that families have been inconvenienced.”
Eleanor Musick, a representative for Save the Park, reiterated that “this dispute is and has always been a legal issue, from that day in February 2018 when the District was informed that they had a major legal obstacle in the Land and Water Conservation Fund and were advised to take a conservative approach and revise their plans at that early stage to avoid it.”
“It was the District’s choice to gamble and barrel headlong toward the obstacle, naively believing they could negotiate their way out of compliance with established federal law. Loss after loss, they refused to change course,” Musick told the Coast News. “They have now slammed into the obstacle they were cautioned to avoid more than two-and-a-half years ago. STP need not apologize for asking the District to comply with the law, nor are they responsible for the consequences of the District’s noncompliance.”
For now, the families of children themselves remain frustrated and emotions still run high.
Sarah Talbot, a Cardiff Elementary parent who spoke to the Coast News in early September, expressed her dismay at the two legal decisions.
“I can’t believe this mess. It’s so upsetting,” Talbot said. “NPS did not follow their own process, causing further delay to students having full access to a rightful education. However, a vocal minority continue this lawsuit despite knowing full well the impacts to the children.”
Currently, there is no definitive timeline for the Cardiff Elementary School’s construction, though the District has promised to keep families and the public updated as quickly as possible.