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Appellate Court Ruling On Plaza De Panama Could Impact Public Interest Lawsuits Statewide

An artist's rendering of the future, pedestrian-only Plaza de Panama.

Above: An artist's rendering of the future, pedestrian-only Plaza de Panama.

In an appellate court ruling Thursday that could have an impact on public interest lawsuits statewide, a historic preservation group that sued to stop a project to remove vehicles from the center of San Diego's Balboa Park was found not liable for opponents' attorney's fees, even though it eventually lost its case in court.

In a 10-page ruling, Presiding Justice Judith McConnell of the Fourth District Court of Appeal wrote that the Save Our Heritage Organisation sued to correct perceived "violations of state and local environmental, historic preservation, and land use laws by the city."

McConnell, with concurrence from Justices Judith Haller and Gilbert Nares, noted that the legal action by SOHO is what state law intends to promote.

The decision was published, meaning it carries more legal weight than other appellate rulings.

In general, victors in court cases can claim attorney's fees if certain conditions are met, but there are exceptions, including the one cited by McConnell.

She also wrote that since SOHO "did not seek to curtail or compromise important public rights" in trying to prevent implementation of the Plaza de Panama project, it should not have to pay the attorney's fees sought by a committee raising funds to pay for its construction.

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She conceded that the Plaza de Panama Committee, which asked for around $96,000, had met the basic conditions of fee recovery.

"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' attorneys fees," SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons said. "We had always understood this to be the law and are very grateful for the court's confirmation of the meaning of this private attorney general fee statute."

SOHO went to court to stop the project five years ago because it opposed construction of a new bridge that would carry traffic away from the plaza. While the group won in Superior Court, it lost after the city of San Diego appealed.

The Plaza de Panama Committee, backed by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, subsequently sued to recover its attorney's fees, but was denied by Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor. The appellate ruling upheld Taylor's position.

After SOHO's lawsuit failed in court, the Plaza de Panama plan was revived by the city of San Diego, and the committee is again seeking funds to begin construction.

SOHO has sued to stop the latest version of the plan as well.

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