The lawsuit challenging Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama renovation project is officially over, with a judge issuing his ruling that Save Our Heritage Organisation, the group that challenged the legality of the proposal, was not required to pay their opponent's legal fees.
On January 8, Superior Court judge Timothy Taylor decided against awarding $96,000 in legal fees to the Irwin Jacobs-backed Plaza de Panama Committee. Taylor's decision marks the end of three-plus years of litigation.
The Plaza de Panama Project surfaced in 2010. The proposal entailed building a bypass bridge darting off from the Cabrillo Bridge, past Alcazar Garden to a proposed underground parking garage. The motivation behind the renovation project was to remove cars from the Plaza de Panama in time for the park's centennial celebration.
The proposal was met with immediate resistance from preservations such as Save Our Heritage Organisation. In 2012, shortly after the city council voted in favor of the proposal, Save Our Heritage Organisation filed a lawsuit against the city and the Plaza de Panama Committee.
The following year, in February 2013, judge Timothy Taylor ruled that the plan violated the municipal code.
A few months later, then-mayor Bob Filner hashed out a different strategy, a much more simple and less costly plan, to remove cars from the plaza. In June 2013 crews removed the parking spaces and large planters from the plaza, and installed tables and seating. Cars were diverted and no longer allowed to enter.
Yet, despite the achievement, the city and the Plaza de Panama Committee appealed Taylor's ruling. That's where it stood until February 2015, when an appellate court overturned Taylor's decision, finding that the plan, among other things, did not "adversely affect the applicable land use plan."
But the fight wasn't over. Attorneys for Save Our Heritage Organisation petitioned the California Supreme Court. The Supreme Court rejected the case in September 2015.
Shortly after attorneys for the Plaza de Panama Committee requested to be reimbursed the $96,000 in attorneys fees. Last week Taylor shot that down.
"The centennial celebration itself became a shell of what many envisioned. Moreover, it is a matter of common knowledge...that shortly after this court's decisions in 2013, the since-discredited Mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, ordered and implemented certain changes to Balboa Park which removed vehicles from many of the areas of Balboa Park where they were formerly allowed, and restored pedestrian and park uses to those areas, all without the expense and arguable disruption of the "Centennial Bridge" and the parking structure that were the focus of this litigation," reads Taylor's ruling.
"Finally, the RPI Plaza de Panama Committee has not been shown to still exist in any real sense, or still have an interest in going forward with the project in light of the passage of time, the passing of the centennial window, the aforementioned Filner changes, and the expiration of the [Site Development Permit].
In regard to fees, Taylor found that attorney fees are granted in a land use case when the decision favors a "project opponent," not a "project proponent."
In addition, ruled Taylor, it isn't even clear who really won the case, since Save Our Heritage Organisation was successful in preventing the large-scale renovations to the park and the construction of a bypass bridge.
"Further, it is certainly arguable that the only 'significant benefit' that was 'conferred on the general public' was the stopping of the project and the avoidance of the Centennial Bridge and the parking structure, which in turn gave rise to the much more modest changes ordered by Filner," wrote Taylor in his ruling.
"Said another way: it is more than arguable that [Save Our Heritage Organisation] was the 'successful party,' by stopping the Centennial Bridge and the parking structure, neither of which appear to this court to be on the proverbial drawing board as 2016 begins and Balboa Park begins its second century. Any benefit conferred by the [Plaza de Panama Committee] is theoretical only, as it could not start work on the Centennial Bridge or the parking structure absent a re-issuance of the permit."