Commentary: Community vetted Cardiff School project; plaintiffs won’t accept it

Jon Cohen

I share Marsha Sutton’s outrage about the personal attacks on Eleanor Musick and others in the “Save the Park” group that has sued the Cardiff School District over the rebuild of Cardiff School. The attacks have been vile and reprehensible — and miss the fundamental point: Save the Park has a different vision for the future of Cardiff and, having failed to stop the project with its lobbying, has turned to the courts. But when it comes to the project itself, I part ways from Sutton on most all of her other arguments, which I think are misleading if not outright inaccurate, unfair and riddled with magical thinking.

Commentary logoAll three of my children attended Cardiff School, and for more than 20 years, I was on the board at Cardiff Soccer League, serving as its secretary, vice president and president. I have used the school fields personally to coach both soccer and Little League, to teach my kids how to ride bicycles, to fly kites, and to hold birthday parties and picnics. I have played basketball, used the wall ball courts, and yes, skateboarded on the blacktop. I have used the dog park that Eleanor Musick generously built and maintained. I have used the sidewalks that surrounded the old northern field, and I have participated in community events on the grounds such as the Ice Cream Socials and Cardiff Soccer Opening Days. I have also attended community meetings in the multipurpose room — including several on whether the school should be remodeled or rebuilt.

I don’t know where Marsha Sutton lives or if she participated in those public meetings. I do know that the room was packed each time with people I recognized as my neighbors. There were diverse voices at the meetings, and a great deal of open debate, which I enjoyed. I believe in transparency and, frankly, I like hearing from people who have different views from my own. I especially admire dissent from people, Eleanor Musick included, who courageously disagree with majority opinion.

The question of whether to remodel or rebuild was thoroughly discussed and put to a vote, which led to the decision to rebuild. All of this was a prelude to placing a bond measure on the ballot. The name of the bond advocacy campaign was “Rebuild the School.” To argue now that the bond language was too vague is a ruse. And several Save the Park members were party to these discussions. Sutton’s claim that “residents feel duped” and that there’s “perceived deception in the district’s intention” is absurd.

The school district administrators and the people on its board — many of whom I have worked with for decades — are talented, honest and devoted. I deeply respect them. They went to great lengths to include the community in this project every step of the way, modifying building plans several times in response to input. I indeed strongly objected to the shape of the playing fields in one draft plan, which included what I thought was an odd triangle of grass that couldn’t easily be used for sports or games. That change was made, but if it was not, I would have accepted that my voice was heard and overruled.

I think the “heart of the community’s disagreement” is not, as Sutton suggests, that voters feel “betrayed” because this is a rebuild rather than a remodel. The heart is that Save the Park refuses to accept that its voice was heard and overruled.

Eleanor Musick was correct to note that the new plans violated the grant agreement with the National Park Service. The city of Encinitas, not the school district, had pushed for this grant. Then the school district — without the City Council’s help — spent two years working with the state and federal government to resolve this issue. Why did the City Council wash its hands of this? The mayor, Catherine Blakespear, recused herself because of her residence’s physical proximity to the project, but her mother was also a leading opponent, creating another conflict of interest. Why did Blakespear in her Aug. 16 newsletter cite Sutton’s two recent editorials on this issue, noting that she had a history of “meticulously researched and written columns”? Has Blakespear’s recusal suddenly ended?

The columns about the school feud are not an example of meticulous research. They are arguments fashioned for a debate club. Sutton cites facts, but she tilts them to hammer in her points, and she ignores details that challenge her arguments.

Sutton claims that the school district “did not perform due diligence to uncover any grant restrictions.” The title for the Cardiff School property has no restrictions, and school districts are not eligible for grants from the NPS’s Land and Water Conservation Fund. The city, not the school, applied for the grant — and forgot about it. Save the Park wants to exploit this mistake, but NPS considered the issue, reviewed the proposal, and granted the school district the boundary adjustment.

Save the Park doesn’t like the NPS decision, so the group filed yet another lawsuit and accused NPS of not being careful enough.

I don’t particularly like the size of the parking lot. I’m sorry several stately trees that I loved were cut down. I liked the view that the multipurpose room blocks. But so what? The new school will be beautiful and serve the community for decades to come. And the process requires that we build consensus and reach compromises, which is especially important at this extremely divisive time in our country’s history. Save the Park is holding fast to what amounts to legal small print and mistaking the letter for the spirit of the law, literally not seeing the forest because of its focus on the trees.

Leaving aside the nuances of the legal arguments, Save the Park also ignores a key point that the school district has made repeatedly: It owns the land, and the George Berkich “park” was a naming meant to honor a beloved principal. The school district’s primary purpose is education, with recreation second. The NPS deal recognizes the land as a recreation area — not a park — and it’s a harsh lesson that the $160,000 grant was for far less money than the district paid to settle the lawsuit. (And why lawyers for Save the Park charged $500,000 for their services is one of the biggest outrages of this controversy.)

Sutton writes that the school district “continued to barrel ahead in a rather reckless manner with the park construction while waiting for National Park Service boundary change approval.” She further asserts, “The school district and its supporters seem to be using Save the Park as a distraction to focus attention away from the district’s own poor planning and lack of due diligence.”

That’s inaccurate — and a distraction to focus attention away from the weaknesses in Save the Park’s arguments. The school district separated the project into two phases, and, at an open Planning Commission meeting in April 2019, sought and received permission to begin one phase that did not involve the NPS decision. It held off on the second phase until it received approval for the boundary adjustment from NPS.

At the end of the day, if this was a civil rights issue, a big corporation trying to make money on city land, or an attempt to stop environmental harm from occurring, I would understand the desire to fight until the bitter end. It is none of those. This is a battle waged by a small group of people who have a vision for Cardiff’s future that did not gain much support. They have lost the battle in the court of public opinion and at the ballot box, and they have settled one battle in the court of law for a huge payout. Their request to remove the multipurpose building and restore the fields to their former configuration is a goofy, desperate attempt to pretend that if you hold tight enough to the past, it will return. It’s time to look forward and stop romanticizing what was.

No one should bully or harass Save the Park members. And I urge them to realize that they do not need another legal “win” to prove the validity of their position: They already have shown that they cannot be cowed. Similarly, proponents of the project should take the high road and recognize that hotblooded, hair-pulling debates about how to best shape a city’s future are, in the end, healthy. I worry more about indifference than passion.

One of the most peculiar aspects to this land use conflict is that the current design has a large recreational space that features, in my mind, improved fields and playgrounds. The school district used a far smaller portion of the land’s footprint for buildings than allowed and kept the building heights — including the multipurpose room — below the maximum limits allowed. In short, the school district has demonstrated that it cares about maintaining a large recreational space for its students and the community.

If Save the Park prevails with its latest court action, it will waste more of Cardiff School District’s already strained budget. And, underscoring the ultimate folly of their unrelenting campaign, it will do nothing to create a better educational experience for kids or improved recreational space for Cardiff.

Journalist Jon Cohen is a Cardiff-by-the-Sea resident.

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