The Academy of Our Lady of Peace (Academy) is an all-girls, Catholic private secondary school established in 1882 and has been located in the North Park area of San Diego since 1925. The Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet sponsor and administer the Academy.
The Academy has done no building since 1965 and there is no possibility for adaptive reuse of existing structures. Thus, in 2007 the Academy sought to implement a modernization plan to renovate and construct new facilities and related amenities to allow it to remain competitive among the region’s schools. Under the modernization plan, the Academy would construct state-of-the-art science laboratories, a new library and media center, additional classroom space, and off-street parking. The modernization plan would require the demolition of three houses, two of which the City characterized as “locally significant based on their architectural features.” The proposed demolition became the rallying point for those opposed to the plan.
In May of 2007, the Academy submitted its plan to the City’s Planning Commission for review and approval. During the Commission’s year-long review of the proposal, the Academy repeatedly met with North Park residents in hopes of working with the community. In 2008, the Commission and the City’s Development Services Department approved the Academy’s plan. The City Council, however, rescinded its approval on the ground that the preservation of the three homes that would be demolished outweighed the Academy’s need to modernize its educational facilities.
In 2009, the Academy brought a federal lawsuit against the City, alleging a violation of RLUIPA, as well as violations of federal and state constitutional rights. After a two-week trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict that the City Council’s denial substantially burdened the Academy’s religious exercise, which was not justified by a compelling governmental interest fulfilled through the least restrictive means possible. The jury awarded the Academy more than $1.1 million in damages, based on the increased cost of construction for its plan from the time it was denied by City Council. This is believed to be the largest verdict ever awarded under RLUIPA.
The City threatened to appeal the verdict, but the two sides reached a settlement agreement to put an end to the five-plus year dispute. As part of the agreement, the City has agreed to pay the Academy a $500,000 cash settlement, as well as paying to relocate two homes and demolish a third by May 2014 to allow the Academy to proceed with its modernization plan. In addition, the settlement includes provisions to fast-track all permits for completion and limits the total cost of such permits and inspections to $100,000.
Daniel Dalton, the attorney representing the Academy, stated of the settlement: “Kudos to the city for working with us and [the Academy] to establish a settlement that works well for both sides, giving the Academy what it needs to move forward to continue educating the young women of San Diego.”
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