City Attorney wins case over Belmont Park’s lease
by DAVE SCHWAB
Published - 11/15/17 - 02:19 PM | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Visitors ride the Giant Dipper at Belmont Park this summer. / Photo by Thomas Melville
Visitors ride the Giant Dipper at Belmont Park this summer. / Photo by Thomas Melville
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The City Attorney’s Office on Nov. 2 defeated a lawsuit that sought to invalidate the City of San Diego’s lease of Belmont Park in Mission Beach to a company that has invested more than $20 million in improvements to the oceanfront amusement park, home of the historic Giant Dipper roller coaster.

The lease, which took effect in 2015, will bring a minimum of $100 million in revenue to the city if it runs its full course. Superior Court Judge Judith F. Hayes issued a final decision that found the city correctly followed the law on all issues.

But it's not over, claim plaintiffs in the unsuccessful lawsuit.

“My client will appeal,” said attorney Cory Briggs, on behalf of a nonprofit group called San Diegans for Open Government. “The ruling violates the will of the voters, who enacted Proposition G to prevent the site from remaining an amusement park in perpetuity, and restore it to a public park. But the judge said it need not ever revert to a public park, and could remain an amusement park forever.” 

Briggs, who has sued the city often, including a successful suit that blocked the San Diego Convention Center's expansion by challenging its financing, filed the lawsuit against the lease seeking to invalidate its extension in Superior Court in 2015. The suit had the potential to shutter the high-profile seven-acre park with its numerous restaurants and bars, amusement rides and extensive beach-oriented retail.

Briggs’ suit alleged the City Council’s approval was illegal on grounds that it violated Proposition G, a 1987 voter-approved initiative restricting non-recreational uses at city-owned Belmont Park; the California Coastal Act; the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the San Diego City Charter.

City attorney Mara W. Elliott defended the court's decision in quashing the suit.

“Many of us remember when Belmont Park was a sketchy and rundown venue. Under the new lease, an upgraded Plunge will reopen, safety is improved, and Belmont Park is again a place for families and tourists alike to create memories,” Elliott said.

The suit contended Prop. G was violated because it provides for public park and recreation uses but specifically prohibits “retail and commercial uses, except within the historically rehabilitated Plunge pool and related buildings.”

“The lease agreement authorizes a long list of ‘improvements’ that were not included in the development plan, such as catering facilities, amusement rides, games of skill, etc.,” states Briggs' lawsuit, which insists violation of Prop. G “deprives the benefit of public access to Mission Beach Park for recreational uses.”

Another Belmont Park Lease extension opponent, San Diego Lifeguard Union head Ed Harris commented: “I objected to the lease while on City Council due to the terms. When the city fails to get fair market value for their leases the taxpayer suffers. We see this with numerous properties. Every dollar the city gives away in bad deals must be covered with increased taxes. The Belmont Park lease gave away millions of dollars that could have been used for city projects.”

The City Council approved Belmont Park’s lease extension in 2015 by a 7-2 vote, with council president Sherri Lightner of District 1 and Councilman David Alvarez of District 8 dissenting.

Briggs’ suit also argued that the City Council’s approval of the 40-year lease extension “failed to comply with the San Diego City Charter rendering the approval null and void.”

Lease terms include $18 million in capital improvements and upgrades, $2.5 million to refurbish the Giant Dipper, and $5.9 million in renovations to The Plunge, the park’s iconic indoor swimming pool which had been closed for years. 

San Diegans for Open Government sued to halt the lease, arguing that the lease terms should have gone to a public vote and that it violated the City Charter, the Coastal Act and the California Environmental Quality Act.

 The City was represented by Chief Deputy City Attorney M. Travis Phelps who was assisted by Deputy City Attorney Hilda R. Mendoza and Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Leslie FitzGerald of the City Attorney’s Civil Advisory Division.

In November 2012, Pacifica Enterprises LLC acquired the Belmont Park leasehold in a bankruptcy trustee sale. Pacifica Enterprises, along with Eat.Drink.Sleep, assumed operations of the park and started restoring and revitalizing it by opening new restaurants including Cannonball, Draft, Belmonty's Burgers, and Hot Dog on a Stick, as well as completing a remodel of WaveHouse Beach Club.

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