San Diego City Council approves settlement over permits for La Jolla fireworks, other events

Team 10 questions man behind fireworks lawsuits

SAN DIEGO - The San Diego City Council gave final approval Tuesday to a settlement in a long-running legal dispute over how the city issues permits for the annual July 4th fireworks show in La Jolla and other events.

Under the agreement, Marco Gonzalez of the Coast Law Group will receive $250,000 to end the litigation, while the city will have to perform environmental reviews before issuing future special event permits or discretionary park use permits.

"Our goal has always been to make sure the city follows the law," Gonzalez told Team 10's Cristin Severance.

Gonzalez filed four lawsuits against the city beginning four years ago, contending that such a review needed to be performed before the city issued permits for the display at La Jolla Cove, and that the city was violating its own municipal code when issuing permits.

The lawyer won three of the four suits, and the last one is on hold while the city appeals the first three, according to documents from the City Attorney's Office. The documents say the city has a strong appellate case, but it would cost more to continue with the litigation than to settle.

Team 10 asked Gonzalez about claims he's in this for the money.

"After really four lawsuits, one where they admitted liability and three loses, I think the city is getting off cheap. Our attorney's fees in this case is $1.5 million," he said. "Only because we were willing to give this city a break is why we were able to settle for $250,000."

The City Council approved the settlement terms in closed session on April 29 and gave final approval in open session Tuesday without comment.

The cases will now be dropped. However, Gonzalez retains the right to legally challenge future city actions in regards to permitting.

Under the deal, the city will have to perform environmental reviews for special event permits and discretionary park permits submitted beginning July 1. Such reviews will also have to be performed for all events that have already been applied for if they're scheduled to take place beginning or after Jan. 1 of next year.

"For years and years, the city just didn't do that," said Gonzalez.

The documents do not state how extensive the reviews will have to be. City lawyers argued that it wasn't reasonable to require a costly environmental impact report for the hundreds of smaller events permitted each year.

"It all depends on the scope of the event, of course," Gonzalez told City News Service. "I expect smaller events will be fine with exemptions (and maybe some larger ones too); but some, such as the Thunderboats, will require significantly more review and mitigation."

"The Thunderboats" refers to the weekend of racing of powerful hydroplane boats on Mission Bay.

Gonzalez targeted the La Jolla Cove fireworks show because it takes place above a protected marine area. Environmentalists contend that debris from the pyrotechnics are harmful to marine life.

The La Jolla Cove show was initially canceled for this year because funding came in too late to contract with a pyrotechnics company. Organizers got a reprieve when a fireworks company was found, and the show is scheduled to go on.

"It's one of the biggest weekends of the year," Miguel Villa, owner of Alfonso's of La Jolla restaurant, said of the La Jolla fireworks display.

Deborah Marengo, head of the La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation, has been fighting with Gonzalez over this issue in court for four years.

"Our show is a 20-minute show one day out of the year. It's a lot to undertake five lawsuits over this period of time," said Marengo.

The La Jolla Cove fireworks show must use additional fencing and fire retardant as part of the settlement.

Team 10 asked if Gonzalez was nitpicking or searching for something wrong with these events.

"Maybe, but at the end of the day we have laws in place; it's just a matter of what the law says they should be doing," said Gonzalez.

As part of the settlement, Gonzalez can't file a lawsuit against the La Jolla fireworks show this year. He could file in 2015 if he believes there are issues.

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