San Diego

Plaza de Panama Committee's Lawyers Won't be Paid by Preservationist Group

The backers of a plan to remove traffic from the heart of Balboa Park have just lost their bid for attorneys’ fees from an opposition group.

That's the upshot of an appeal court ruling involving the $80 million Plaza de Panama project.

This legal marathon started five years ago when billionaire Irwin Jacobs' Plaza de Panama Committee proposed a controversial bypass roadway off the Cabrillo Bridge, leading eastward to a paid parkade close to Park Boulevard.

That plan approved by the city was challenged by the nonprofit Save our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), which won in Superior Court but later lost on appeal.

Jacobs' committee requested that SOHO pay its lawyers’ fees, about $100,000, but a trial judge refused to award them.

On Thursday, the 4th District State Court of Appeal in San Diego ruled that environmental groups that bring lawsuits in "the public interest" aren't on the hook for such payments.

While the City Council approved a new version of the Jacobs plan and nearly $50 million for infrastructure, the Plaza de Panama Committee and a coalition of other park interests groups will contribute $30 million, plus cost overruns.

SOHO has since filed another lawsuit to stop the project, and that case has been scheduled for trial in August.

SOHO's lawyer noted that the published appellate decision is "precedent-setting", meaning it can be cited as guidance for trial court judges in any similar attorney-fee cases going forward.

Said Bruce Coons, executive director of SOHO: “We put our faith in the courts to enforce environmental laws, and could not do so if our good faith actions might result in liability for developers’ attorney fees.”

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