November 14, 2011
San Diego Union Tribune
By Mike Lee

Shane Simons, 2, pulls the weight of the world with Kids For Peace during the Children’s Parade for EarthFair 2011 on Sunday at Balboa Park on Sunday. — Eduardo Contreras

The San Diego City Council on Monday approved new language for park permits intended to streamline the process and address related lawsuits, including the high-profile fracas over Independence Day fireworks.

Two hours of sometimes-heated debate preceded the 5-3 vote for a typically routine type of hearing, a foreshadowing of challenges that likely will be wrapped into existing court cases and possibly new ones by groups upset with the decision.

In October, the council voted to adopt changes to park permitting rules, pending the normal second vote. After several assurances from the City Attorney’s Office that it was on solid legal ground, the council approved the new rules over the objections of David Alvarez, Marti Emerald and Todd Gloria.

One key change was altering city code to clarify that the vast majority of park-use permits for fireworks shows and other events are routine — not up to the discretion of parks officials — and thereby don’t need reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. The council also codified the way the city handles permit requests for large events during the summer, when park use peaks.

Cory Briggs, a lawyer for the community group, joined the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties in objecting to the city’s moratorium on new summer events on the grounds that it allows the city to pick “winners and losers” because some events have been grandfathered.

“Except for a few favored events, it prohibits … forms of free speech that are fully protected by the First Amendment,” David Blair-Loy, legal director for the local ACLU branch said in a Monday letter to the council.

Malinda Dickenson, a lawyer for organizers of the annual EarthFair event, said the council’s permitting rules may prove problematic for the Earth Day celebrations in Balboa Park that draw an estimated 60,000 people a year.

“For 2012, (the event) is looking good,” she said outside the council chambers. But if future permits are denied by city staff, she said, “the problem is there is no mechanism for an appeal to the City Council. … That is something that is not constitutional.”

She said a lawsuit on the issue “certainly would have merit” but she didn’t know if her client would pursue it.

The city’s revamped permitting process is the result of challenges to Independence Day fireworks shows that Encinitas attorney Marco Gonzalez and the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation have contested in court the past two summers. Gonzalez sued to prove that fireworks shows in the city need CEQA reviews, and a Superior Court judge ruled over the summer that thousands of park-use permits issued by the city need CEQA reviews because of how city laws were written.

With the newly adopted language, city leaders are hoping to avoid triggering CEQA for so many birthday parties, fun runs and other events.

Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn has set a hearing in December to assess how much progress the city has made addressing her concerns.