No surprise here: The historic preservation group that has loudly opposed a plan to remake Balboa Park’s western entrance formally sued the city yesterday.

The group, Save Our Heritage Organisation, announced its intention to sue the day after the City Council approved the plan in July.

We’ve already taken a first crack at breaking down some of their legal arguments. So let’s take a look at those (and make sure to check out the full suit for more detail):

• They invoke an 1870 statute that the land should forever be a “free and public park” and say a planned paid parking garage violates that statute.

The park hosts many services and institutions that charge, however, such as valet parking, restaurants and museums.

From our post:

… SOHO’s attorney, Susan Brandt-Hawley, said she interprets it simply.

“Free means free,” Brandt-Hawley opined. “It appears that a paid parking garage would not be consistent with the trust dedication of this park.”

• SOHO challenges whether the plan complies with state environmental law in weighing public opinion and alternative plans.

• SOHO also challenges the city based on its own law for historic properties.

It’s a bit tricky to follow. The city’s own law (if you’re interested, go to section “i” under 126.0504) says that the City Council must find that if it did not approve the project, the landowner (in this case, the city) would suffer economic hardship. And that there would be “no reasonable beneficial use of a property” without the designed project.

At the July meeting, an attorney for the Plaza de Panama committee, Scott Williams, suggested a few arguments for how the city could make the finding:

• By not approving the plan, the city would be on the hook to pay for benefits to the park that have already been part of city planners.

• By rejecting private money from philanthropist Irwin Jacobs and others, the city would be essentially taking money out of its own pocket.

• By allowing the park to continue as-is, without improvements, the plazas would someday become unusable.

I’ve heard there are few, if any, precedents for interpreting this statute; I’m working to find that out. Unlike with state environmental law, the judge will likely be deciding this point on the merits of the two sides’ arguments without many past cases to refer to.

SOHO hopes a judge will force the city to rescind its approval of the project. And while the courts are deciding, SOHO has asked for a temporary restraining order to stop work on the project.

Mayor Jerry Sanders and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs have spearheaded the plan, designing a new bridge coming off of the Cabrillo Bridge and diverting traffic away from the park’s Plaza de Panama and Plaza de California, the plazas fronting several of the park’s iconic structures. A new parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion would cost $5 to park for five hours.

SOHO, the preservation group, dislikes the new road’s projected impacts to the Cabrillo Bridge and the historic entrance to the park, built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. Many park lovers also criticize the plan to charge for parking.

SOHO’s executive director, Bruce Coons, released a statement announcing the lawsuit. He commented:

It is SOHO’s obligation to spearhead this litigation on behalf of the many thousands of San Diegans that object to this flawed proposal and whose concerns and suggestions were ignored by Mr. Jacobs, the Mayor and the City Council.

Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office issued a statement decrying the lawsuit.

Once again, SOHO is threatening to harm Balboa Park if it didn’t get its way, by delaying long-need needed improvements and holding our 2015 Celebration hostage. All San Diegans should be extremely disappointed, as I am, by this narrow-minded special-interest group for trying to kill a project that will only further beautify this great park.

The City Attorney’s Office added a terse comment: “The city plans to vigorously defend this lawsuit.”

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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