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Planning Commission OKs Cardiff school project

ENCINITAS — Cardiff School District’s plans to redesign the campus cleared a critical hurdle as the Encinitas Planning Commission voted April 18 to approve the project.

But the Planning Commission’s vote sidesteps the controversial issue of the school’s proposed boundary adjustment and construction of a multi-purpose room on a section of George Berkich Park.

The rare 3-0 Planning Commission vote — commissioner Brett Farrow abstained because he lives across the street from the school and Bruce Ehlers was absent — splits the project into two phases.

Phase 1 includes the demolition and construction of eight buildings on campus, while Phase 2 — the multipurpose room, expanded parking lot and boundary adjustment — would be contingent upon City Council, state and federal approval.

“We don’t need to adjudicate the park boundary tonight,” Commissioner Kevin Doyle said. “Even with reservations … I am leaning towards approval, but with that being said, it’s a thorny, thorny issue.

“It’s a nicely designed school, and I wish we didn’t have the park complication here, because it is a complication and it isn’t something we can just wish away,” Doyle said. 

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 terrace-style seating 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.

The district needs the approval of both the state and National Park Service for the project’s second phase because of a 1993 federal grant agreement that requires the park remain in perpetuity unless the agencies endorse a boundary change.

That agreement requires the district to replace the lost park land with a corresponding amount of land. 

School district officials have proposed redrawing the boundary to include the school’s parking lot, which would double in size in the new plan, as well as opening the school’s garden for community use. The city of Encinitas, which also would have to endorse the proposal.

A packed and divided council chambers on April 18 pitted school supporters, donning powder-blue T-shirts, against project opponents in a sometimes heated hourlong discussion. 

Supporters echoed a common refrain: the district has been responsive to the community, and has developed a project favored by a majority of the community that balances the community’s feedback with the district’s desire to create a safe and modern campus for its pupils.

“We have a 100-year-old school that has fallen into disrepair with 50-year-old classrooms that are outdated, and a potential safety issue under the current design, all of which will be resolved with this remodel,” said Kurt Groseclose, a former planning commissioner and resident. “What’s more important to community than educating its children in an updated and safe environment?”

A no vote, school officials said, would set the project back at least a year due to construction timing and would increase the project’s overall price tag by at least $1 million. 

Opponents, many of whom are part of the group Cardiff Preservation Society, continued to rail against the project, which they said was flawed and won’t gain the approvals needed to proceed with the second phase.

Officials with the Department of State Parks in a letter earlier this month expressed skepticism in the district’s boundary adjustment largely because the parking lot, they said, would serve the school more so than the park users. 

In addition to questions as to whether the state and federal agencies will sign off on the boundary change, opponents have amended a lawsuit they filed against the district to include a bond challenge, arguing that the district has included several buildings that were not mentioned in the language of Measure GG.  

“There are too many unresolved issues at this time, there is a likelihood the plan will require revision, so approval of the permit at this time is premature,” said Eleanor Musick, one of the more vocal opponents of the project. “This can needs to be kicked down the road.”

Supporters acknowledged that the opposition group early on did add a lot of suggestions that contributed to an improved proposal, but said the latest complaints and lawsuits were “grasping at legal straws,” with one speaker likening it to Monty Python and the Black Knight “who has his limbs cut off but he keeps fighting.”

“To pretend now that people haven’t been heard is an absolute fiction,” one of the speakers said. 

Commissioners said they believed the plan was compliant with city codes and said that if the second phase didn’t receive approval, the district would have to return for an amendment to the first phase. 

Commissioner Al Apuzzo said he appreciated that the district was not trying to build a super-dense campus with two-story buildings, a nod to the district’s sensitivity to its surrounding neighbors. 

“What I recognize is that if this were a private developer, the buildings would be 30-feet high, they would have 50% lot coverage,” Apuzzo said. “I appreciate the sensitivity to the community, they are being thoughtful about limiting height and limiting lot coverage … and I think the overriding effort of the school district and its community outreach leads me to support what’s laid out.”

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