City: Park project has green light

An appeals court's recent ruling has given Huntington Beach the ability to build a $22-million senior center in Huntington Central Park, City Atty. Jennifer McGrath said.

The court on Monday upheld an Orange County Superior Court judge's ruling that the city violated its general plan and a state environmental law by not adequately looking at alternative locations in its environmental impact report for the planned senior center. However, it overturned the judge's ruling that the city could not use funds from the stalled Pacific City project to build the center.

The Parks Legal Defense Fund, a citizens group dedicated to protecting open space, filed a complaint in 2008 seeking to halt construction of the center. The group alleged that the city violated its general plan and two state environmental laws and that a 2006 vote of the people on the issue was not final.

According to McGrath, Monday's ruling amounted to a green light for Huntington to proceed.

"I am pleased to report the Court of Appeals issued a favorable ruling in the senior center case today," McGrath said in a statement Monday.

The appeals court overturned the original ruling because the Parks Legal Defense Fund missed the deadline to file its complaints regarding the vote and the Pacific City funds with Orange County Superior Court. The Defense Fund filed its complaints regarding the general plan and the environmental impact report in time, so the appeals court did not throw them out.

The appeals court, however, didn't rule on the actual merit of the complaints about the vote and Pacific City funds, dismissing them only because of the deadline issue.

The environmental impact report was found in violation of state laws because it didn't consider alternative sites or whether using money from Pacific City to fund the project would have a negative effect on the city's ability to provide open space, according to court documents. The city is looking into the deadline for filing an appeal of the decision, McGrath said.

Orange County Superior Court Judge David C. Velasquez originally ruled that the city was in violation of its general plan and the California Environmental Quality Act.

Velazquez also found the use of the entire $22 million from Pacific City, a stalled project on Pacific Coast Highway that would bring a hotel, residential, retail and restaurant facilities together, to be a violation of a state act. The Pacific City funds are being used under the Quimby Act, a state law that sets aside money to preserve open space, establish recreational facilities or fund other facilities for Pacific City residents to use.

The fact that the use of Quimby Act dollars to fund the senior center was found in violation the first time is important, said community activist Mark Bixby, who has long opposed the center in the park and contributed financially to the Parks Legal Defense Fund.

The appeals court didn't consider the issue, so the only time it was looked at, it was found in violation, he said.

Bixby said he thinks there could be a window to re-raise the issue if Pacific City revises some of its agreements with the city.

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