A long-standing controversy over the future of Blair Park on Moraga Avenue — should it be used for soccer fields or maintained as natural parkland? — neared its end this week when the City of Piedmont and the Friends of Moraga Canyon (FOMC) reached a formal settlement of a pending FOMC lawsuit.
Under the agreement, announced at Monday night's Piedmont City Council meeting, the city will pay $15,000 toward legal fees to FOMC's attorneys and $15,000 to a consultant who will develop a landscaping plan for the park. If the consultant's fees are less than $15,000, the remainder of the money will go toward implementation of the plan.
You may read the full text of the settlement agreement on the City of Piedmont website.
Both payments will come from a $125,000 indemnification fund deposited with the city earlier by the Piedmont Recreational Facilities Organziation (PRFO), the group which wanted to build soccer fields at Blair Park under a public-private agreement.
“We are very pleased with this agreement,” said FOMC President Jim Semitekol in a statement Tuesday. “Our goal from the outset has been to save Blair Park as a small slice of natural open space for all Piedmont residents and visitors to enjoy, to preserve the habitat for wildlife, and provide an attractive gateway to the City of Piedmont.
“We are grateful to have the lawsuit behind us,” he added, “and we look forward to working with the City to develop and implement a successful plan that truly preserves and enhances Blair Park.”
In exchange for the payments, according to a City of Piedmont press release, "FOMC will dismiss the lawsuit against the City with prejudice and agree not to seek any further costs or attorneys’ fees from the City." (You may read the city's complete press release in "City Settles Lawsuit with Friends of Moraga Canyon," published Nov. 20.
The FOMC lawsuit had challenged the city's approval of the Environmental Impact Report for the soccer fields project.
"The intent of the [landscaping] plan is to preserve the park’s healthy native trees, remove dead or dying trees, and gradually replace removed trees with more appropriate species," according to the FOMC statement. "The plan will include improving the existing pedestrian trail, eradicating invasive plants, and identifying drought-tolerant plants and ground covers to 'create an attractive setting for park users and enhance habitat for birds and other wildlife.'
"The landscape consultant selected by the City must have experience in 'creating and/or implementing plans for natural "open space" parks similar to Blair Park,'" the FOMC press release said.
"FOMC will have an opportunity to comment on the scope of the consultant’s work plan and on the plan, itself, before it is approved or implemented. Once the landscape plan is approved, the City will use remaining funds from the settlement agreement — and any additional money the City decides to allocate — to implement the plan."
The settlement was finalized Monday night when Mayor John Chiang signed the agreement, according to City Administrator Geoffrey Grote. Representatives of the other parties to the agreement, which include FOMC, PRFO and Blair Park LLC, had already signed the document.
Grote said that since a settlement has been reached, city officials will be "sitting down" with representatives of PRFO to discuss money still owed to the City of Piedmont for costs associated with the Blair Park project.
A reimbursement and indemnification agreement between PRFO and the city, dated Aug. 12, 2011, specifies an initial deposit of $118,000 from PRFO to reimburse the city for "legal and consultant costs directly or indirectly incurred by City in connection with review and processing of the Proposed Project."
As of May 2012, according to a report by Grote, eligible costs had reached $338,267.08, with $220,267.08 owed by PRFO.
The PRFO has not made any payments since that date, Grote said Tuesday. He also said no determination has yet been made on what will happen to the balance of the indemnification fund once the $30,000 has been deducted to pay costs associated with this week's agreement.
The Blair Park issue divided Piedmont residents for several years. Proponents cited a need for more play and practice space for the city's youth sports clubs. Opponents maintained that the proposed sports fields would lead to traffic woes and environmental problems, as well as eliminating Piedmont's only open space that's in a relatively natural state.
The park has received little maintenance in recent years, with dead and dying trees on the site.
The city approved the sports field plan in December of 2011, then rescinded its approval in May of this year — at the request of the PRFO — as costs escalated.