City to pay Academy of Our Lady of Peace $500K to settle lawsuit

Suit was over rejected expansion plans

SAN DIEGO - The San Diego City Council Tuesday voted 6-2 to pay $500,000 to the Academy of Our Lady of Peace to settle a lawsuit over the Catholic girls' school's rejected expansion plans.

The council twice rejected proposals by the Academy to add classrooms and new science facilities at its overcrowded campus in University Heights, proposals that drew strong neighborhood opposition. The school sued the city in 2009, and a federal jury ruled in the academy's favor last October. The school was initially awarded $5.6 million.

The plan is to phase in the new projects -- a parking structure first, then a classroom-laboratory building.

Neighbors have been battling the Catholic girl's high school over size and expansion for years.

Resident Ross Lopez has opposed the expansion, and he said, "The school has been involved in lies and deceit since 1985 … They claimed their religious practice was being infringed upon."

Tom MacDonald, another neighbor who's been battling the school, added, "We're disheartened that they condescended to use the religious institution provision in the law to protect against religious discrimination. We don't feel this is the case at all. We like the school. We believe in institutions; they're necessary, but they're going about it the wrong way."

Doug Buckley rents the home adjacent to the school that is to be relocated.

"I think it's disappointing that a historic home will be removed and moved. I know that's the plan -- to move it -- but it'd be better suited if it could stay here. A school was placed in a residential area and that can be a great situation and everyone can be happy but in this case the expansion was more than the neighborhood could handle," said Buckley.

Council President Todd Gloria, who represents the area, said the environmental impact report for the project, as provided to the council, was inadequate.

"The project as proposed was in conflict with the neighborhood community plan and was not supported by the community planning group," Gloria said. "I wish the trial had turned out differently, but as any attorney will tell you, there is nothing more uncertain than litigation."

He said the city was obligated to shell out the money, but he cast a dissenting vote to stay consistent with his prior position on the issue. Councilwoman Sherri Lightner cast the other no vote.

Gloria issued this full statement on the matter:

"It has always been my desire that OLP would revise their Modernization Plan so that it preserved the community character without removing or damaging the historic resources. I have remained consistent in advocating this position, as well as my opposition to the project as proposed by OLP through two Council hearings, a deposition, a cross-examination at trial, and four closed session meetings, including the hearing yesterday on the settlement.

The vote yesterday, which I opposed, reflected a business decision by the supporting members of the Council to take a settlement offer that had been reduced from $5.6 million down to $500,000.

The settlement provides an opportunity to move two historic homes, whereas OLP had petitioned the court to be able to demolish the homes on site. There is now an opportunity to relocate them, and I'm glad that the City's Real Estate Assets Department is investigating potential City-owned sites on which the homes may be appropriate.

Had this case moved forward on appeal, everything that the jury found, like the finding that the City's denial of the plan unfairly burdened OLP's right to religious exercise, the Court of Appeal would have taken as facts.

It is important to note that the case does not constitute a published decision; it does not set precedent, meaning that it can't be used to decide other cases. The case will be dismissed when the City has complied with all conditions. If the City had continued with the appeal, we would have run the risk of it becoming a precedent setting case.

The efforts of OLP will forever change the character of the neighborhood and has soured the relationship between the school and its neighbors. I wish the outcome had been different but am proud to stand with my constituents and oppose this project from beginning to end."

Academy of Our Lady of Peace Chief Financial Officer Dasan Mahadevan told 10News the school is "extremely pleased" to be able to move forward. Mahadevan issued the following statement:

"The Academy of Our Lady of Peace is extremely pleased with the jury verdict and the city decision to put further litigation behind us. To finally have the entitlements to proceed with our modernization project is a bright and positive light at the end of what was, for us, a long tunnel.

We look forward to working with the city in a positive manner in seeing much needed and critical pieces of school infrastructure built. We anticipate staging the construction in two phases beginning with a parking structure on the east side of the campus and follow that with a classroom building on the west side of the school.

Through the entitlement process we were able to identify specific concerns on the part of our neighbors and we have taken several steps to address those concerns. We have a community liaison person who will answer and help solve neighbor issues. Our parking structure will pull cars off the street. We have four traffic directors on the street before and after school.

Most of all we want to say, 'Thank you, San Diego, for allowing us to continue our mission of providing quality Catholic high school education to the young women of San Diego.' We have pursued that mission since 1882 and look forward to another 100 years of service to our great San Diego community."
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