October 28, 2011
San Diego Union Tribune
by Christopher Cedelago and Mike Lee

DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO — A judge on Friday temporarily delayed requiring environmental reviews for fireworks displays and thousands of other events permitted by the city of San Diego.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn called the city’s request for an indefinite delay “fluffy,” but set a Dec. 9 hearing on whether to lift the stay on her precedent-setting decision to require the reviews.

Quinn also granted a request from environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez to receive the list of city approved special events, to be updated every two weeks.

“We don’t unnecessarily oppose a stay, but we oppose a blanket stay that’s indefinite without a forum for us to receive information,” Gonzalez told the judge.

City attorneys argued that they made significant progress addressing Quinn’s May order, including weekly meetings with about 10 high-ranking officials, but needed more time to avoid “devastating” economic fallout if the city were forced to stop issuing park-use permits and special event permits because it hasn’t done environmental assessments.

“Many San Diego citizens will lose jobs, many of the nonprofits will go out of business, and the local economy will suffer,” Deputy City Attorney Glenn Spitzer wrote in court papers.

He said the most time-consuming issue was developing a “programmatic” environmental impact report to address major events such street fairs, races and parades that are important cultural touchstones and fundraisers for nonprofit groups.

Spitzer said the city is aggressively moving forward with an overarching environmental review that will streamline the permitting process but didn’t provide a date by which it would be done.

“The Office of Special Events has been meeting with the police department, development services and attorneys in our office and brainstorming the new overhaul. So they have made significant progress,” he said Friday. “And I understand with the concern that it is a bit fluffy at this point. “That’s just the way cities operate. It’s a big ship we’re steering. And we’ve already steered it pretty sharp.

“What I can offer is that in the near future we can provide a firm timeline.”

Gonzalez contested San Diego’s push for extra time. He said the city’s request contained “gross hyperbole” and that the city didn’t follow court rules for seeking an extended delay.

The tangle of court actions started to 2010, when Gonzalez and the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation sued the city for alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, with regards to permitting the annual Fourth of July fireworks show in La Jolla.

They weren’t successful in stopping the pyrotechnic display. However, Quinn in May agreed with Gonzalez that the city’s permitting process was faulty.

The San Diego City Council revised its permitting language at about the same in hopes of avoiding CEQA reviews, but Quinn said it left too much discretion for city officials and therefore park-use permits were subject to CEQA. She then put her ruling on hold so that the July 4 show La Jolla could go off as planned.

On Oct. 11, the City Council voted to alter the municipal code to clarify that the vast majority of park-use permits are routine — not up to the discretion of parks officials — and therefore don’t need environmental reviews. That change must be voted on a second time by the council — likely on Nov. 14 — before being formally enacted.

Gonzalez is expected to challenge the legality of the city’s action at that time.

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