The city of San Diego is not liable for the stink left by birds and sea lions on the coastal rocks in La Jolla, a judge ruled Friday.
"The court does not minimize the unpleasantness of the odors," wrote Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor, "and it empathizes with the business challenges they cause for area merchants and restaurateurs."
But the droppings left by the sea creatures are a fact of nature, not comparable to a broken sewer pipe or overflowing trash dump that the city would have an obligation to fix, Taylor indicated in a seven-page ruling.
"The city can address the pooping habits of wild animals as a policy matter, but it cannot be compelled to do so by the courts," said City Atty. Jan Goldsmith.
A group of business owners sued to force the city to clean the "buildup of sea lion excrement and cormorant droppings" that has created a powerful stink that wafts into the restaurants, hotels and shops "near the fashionable La Jolla Cove business district," according to the ruling.
The group's attorney, Norman Blumenthal, said the group plans to appeal Taylor's ruling.
Taylor agreed with a request by the city attorney to toss out the lawsuit on grounds that "the odors are part of the risk/benefit of being situated near a marine environment."
Taylor wrote that the city neither caused the smell nor had a responsibility to eliminate it. His ruling was finalized Friday after final arguments.
The stench problem has vexed city officials for more than four years. One complicating factor is that federal law protects sea lions from being harassed.
Former Mayor Bob Filner hired a Northern California environmental cleanup firm in 2013 to clean the rocks. In his resignation speech, he listed elimination of the stink as one of his accomplishments.
But soon the smell returned, made worse by warm weather and lack of rain to wash the rocks.
Blumenthal argued that Filner's cleanup order, in effect, obligated the city to continue cleaning the rocks. "They didn't finish the job," he said.
Taylor agreed with the city attorney's office that said that Filner's order was actually just a memo that had no lasting authority.
The lawsuit was filed by a group called Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement. The group's president is George Hauer, owner of George's At The Cove, one of the city's premiere dining spots.
The sea lions' preference for pungent anchovies "makes the smell much worse than it might otherwise be," the lawsuit says.