Court Upholds Plan to Eliminate Vehicles from Balboa Park Complex

In Save Our Heritage Organisation v. City of San Diego, et al. (No. D063992, filed 5/28/15), the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District upheld a controversial plan to eliminate vehicles from various plazas in historic Balboa Park. In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeal considered a question of first impression involving the interpretation of San Diego Municipal Code section 126.0504.

Balboa Park, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1940, is a large urban park in the center of San Diego. The City of San Diego (“City”) recently approved a proposed plan (“Project”) to eliminate vehicles from the plazas within the Balboa Park complex and to return the plazas to purely pedestrian zones. Subsequently, a community group named Save Our Heritage Organisation (“SOHO”) filed a petition for a writ of mandate alleging, among other things, the City erroneously approved the Project. SOHO contended Municipal Code section 126.0504 mandated two key findings be made before the Project could be approved: (1) that the intended purpose of the property would not be adversely affected; and (2) without the proposed project, the property would not be put to a “reasonable beneficial use.” SOHO argued that although the City made the requisite findings, those findings lacked substantial evidentiary support. The trial court agreed with SOHO and directed the City to rescind the site development permit.

The City argued on appeal that Municipal Code section 126.0504 vested it with “discretion to make a qualitative determination of whether an existing use of the property, even if deemed beneficial, is also a reasonable use of that property under all of the facts and circumstances applicable to the particular property in question.” The Court of Appeal agreed and reversed.

In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeal gave effect to each and every phrase in the ordinance and construed the term “reasonable” to have a meaning independent of the phrase “beneficial use.” Thus, the Court found the language of the ordinance “permits the decision maker to decide whether an existing use of a property is unreasonable, even though that existing use may be beneficial in some manner to someone.” Phrased another way, San Diego Municipal Code section 126.0504(i)(3) requires the decision maker reviewing a proposed project to make two inquiries: (1) whether the current use of the property without the proposed plan can be deemed a “beneficial’ use; and (2) whether the beneficial uses to which the property can be put without the proposed plan can be deemed “reasonable” uses.

As applied to the Balboa Park Project, the Court concluded there was substantial evidence to support the City’s finding that the current use of the Balboa Park property, although beneficial, was unreasonable. First, traffic congestion prevented beneficial use of the property, as pedestrians are not free to visit attractions free of vehicle conflicts. Second, the rates of pedestrian/vehicle near-miss accidents resulted in a dangerous and undesirable park experience. The Court of Appeal further found there was substantial evidence the intended historic purpose of the property would not be adversely affected by the Project. Although the Project may involve substantial alterations to certain historical elements within Balboa Park, the Court found the Project, as a whole, was consistent with the goals and policies underlying the designation of Balboa park as National Historic Landmark.

This Soho opinion offers insight into the legal complexities facing those proposing or opposing public projects that involve alterations of designated historical property or property within a historical district.

This document is intended to provide you with information about recent law related developments. The contents of this document are not intended to provide specific legal advice. This communication may be considered advertising in some jurisdictions.

June 5, 2015