City Sued over Riding Park / San Juan Creek Violations



Several PVC pipes such as this one appeared to drain
contaminated water from the Riding Park into San Juan Creek.
Although the pipes have since been removed, the amount of
contaminated waste water drained into the creek is unknown.
For many months, Parks and Recreation Commissioners and the San Diego Water Board had made the city aware of environmental damage to San Juan Creek at the Riding Park. The City obfuscated remediation of the damage until ultimately, a non-profit environmental protection organization took legal action in an effort to compel the city to resolve the many violations. On June 2nd a lawsuit was filed in OC Superior Court against the City and Blenheim Facilities Management by the Orange County Coastkeepers. The lawsuit alleges 1,825 violations accumulated over a number of years, related to contamination of and damage to San Juan Creek at the city-owned Riding Park, Reata Park and the Arizona Crossing in San Juan Creek.

Allegations include deposit of unpermitted fill dirt into the creek, unpermitted drainage of contaminated water into the protected creek and unpermitted structures such as horse wash racks on the creek bank which allow contaminated water to flow into and pollute the creek.

City Given 60 Days Notice
On March 31st, the Coastkeepers sent a "Notice of Violations and Intent to File Suit Under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act" to the City and Blenheim Facilities Management. The warning notice states in part, "… Coastkeeper's investigations indicate an ongoing failure by the Notice Recipients to comply with the requirements of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act at the Riding Park, Reata Park, and Arizona Crossing properties. Individual examples of failure to comply with the requirements of the Clean Water Act [are listed within the notice]… including creek contamination and volumes of soil allegedly pushed into the creek with heavy equipment …" (see a copy of the Coastkeeper’s letter on our website at: www.ccsense.com).

After giving the City and Blenheim 60 days to negotiate remediation of the violations, they met with City Manager Ben Siegel, an attorney hired by the city to protect its interests, several city employees and Melissa Brandes of Blenheim, in an effort to resolve the violations.

The Coastkeepers however, were disappointed in the city’s apparent lack of understanding of just how serious the damage is, or their role in it. They failed to reach an agreement and according to the Coastkeepers, the City and Blenheim continue to violate the Clean Water Act. On June 2nd, a lawsuit was filed in OC Superior Court against the City and Blenheim Facilities Management.

Lawsuit Validates Commissioners’ Concerns
The allegations by the Coastkeepers vindicate city commissioners who filed complaints with the city about on-going code violations at the Riding Park and damage to San Juan Creek. The two Parks, Recreation, Senior and Youth Services Commissioners initially expressed concern about the numerous violations at the Riding Park and the creek in July of 2016. In the following months, the city manager’s written reports and claims that all violations had been resolved were not supported by the evidence. Commissioners continued to document on-going problems including contaminated water and fill dirt being deposited into the creek. When the commissioners attempted to follow up on the violations by asking for a status report from staff to the Parks and Recreation commission however, their agenda items were repeatedly removed and/or blocked.

City Manager’s Continued Denials
The multiple violations listed in the lawsuit contradict City Manager Siegel’s repeated denials about on-going violations. In several city memos, reports and in a city Press Release dated April 11, 2017, Siegel claims that soil and debris deposited into the creek is a result of "storm activity". The Coastkeepers say that the city/Blenheim failed to secure the proper permits for grading that the city claims was necessary due to the alleged storm activity. The city manager's denials ring hollow in light of heavy equipment at the Riding Park/San Juan Creek which has been observed and photographed in recent months, after the storm season activity had ended. Heavy equipment tire tracks leading to the creek bank into which large volumes of soil and debris had been deposited were also observed and photographed on numerous occasions by residents and commissioners, including during dry summer months. In some cases, mature trees appear to have been plowed under and/or buried under soil and debris including trash, concrete, and sod.
The fines and penalties for the alleged violations are potentially enormous; as much as $50,000 per day for violations dating back to 2009. This could have been avoided had the city manager enforced the law, say the commissioners.

"If the City Manager had just done his job and taken care of the violations rather than attempting to sweep them under the rug, this [lawsuit] could have been avoided", said former City Commissioner Kim McCarthy

In a previous article, the CCS printed photographs of PVC pipes sticking out of the creek banks which appeared to drain from the Riding Park into the creek. Also observed and photographed was a "shower trailer" with three stalls and a PVC drainage pipe running into the ground. It is unknown whether the trailer’s pipe was one of the three pipes draining into the creek. The city manager denies that the shower trailer drained to the creek, although there was no containment tank to catch the waste water. The shower trailer has since been moved further away from the creek, "… in the interest of protecting the watershed," according to City Manager Siegel. And, while Siegel stated in a city memo, "… If the showers are put back in service, waste water from the showers is required to be captured in a containment tank," we could find no permit for such a shower facility on any of the city’s open space properties. The city manager did however, put an item on a recent council agenda advising the council to approve installation of a taxpayer-funded half million dollar sewer system at the Riding Park in order to catch "waste water" generated by Blenheim’s private business activities. (See CCS May issue for a complete article on the high cost to taxpayers for a sewer system that is only for horses, as the riding park cannot have a permanent structure (such as a restroom) Furthermore, Coastkeepers claims that the sewer system would not fix the problem. Although Council members Ferguson, Farias, Maryott and Reeve all voted to support spending taxpayer monies on the half million dollar sewer system (Councilmember Patterson voted no), it is unknown whether the city will try to move forward with its construction in light of the lawsuit.

City Investigates Commissioners after Code Complaints Filed Also troubling are the bureaucratic responses to the complaints and concerns about damage to the Riding Park and creek. The two city commissioners who initially pointed out the damage and potential violations on the property were both "investigated" by the City Manager and City Attorney (see related article "Whistleblower Retaliation Alleged" on page 1). City Manager Siegel justified the investigations by stating that it is his responsibility to investigate complaints about employees and/or commissioners. However, the CCS is aware of complaints submitted to the city manager about the actions of another commissioner and a council member which were ignored or dismissed, even though the allegations were serious in nature.

The allegations of whistleblower retaliation against the commissioner(s) were serious enough to warrant an investigation by the California Labor Board which is on-going, and are grounds for a potential lawsuit.

A copy of the Coastkeepers lawsuit and related documents can be found under "Community Links".

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