California Appellate Court Halts District’s Use of General Obligation Bond Funds for Field Lighting

May 2013

Authorization by voters of general obligation bonds did not contemplate a district’s use of the bond proceeds for the acquisition and installation of lighting at a high school football field, the California Court of Appeal determined in Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (Mar. 26, 2013, D060999).

In this case, the plaintiff (“Taxpayers”) challenged the San Diego Unified School District's (“District”) use of general obligation bond proceeds for the acquisition and installation of field lighting for the football field at Hoover High School (“Hoover”).  In 2008, voters in the District authorized $2.1 billion in general obligation bonds (“Proposition S”).  The language of Proposition S encompassed 26 specific project descriptions at Hoover, including upgrading the school’s fields, tracks, and courts for accessibility compliance.  Proposition S also authorized the use of bond proceeds for “other costs incidental to and necessary for completion of the listed projects . . . including . . .  permanent athletic field equipment and facilities (including nets, basketball standards, goals and goalposts, backstops), field lighting, etc.”

In holding that the authorization by the voters in Proposition S did not include the costs of the field lighting at Hoover, the court explained that bond proceeds could only be used for field lighting if such equipment were incidental to and necessary for the completion of the specifically authorized projects.  That is, the field lighting could not stand alone as an independent project and must be “tethered” to one of the 26 projects listed for Hoover.  Because it could not reasonably be tethered to any of the projects listed, the field lighting could not be funded by bond proceeds.

The Taxpayers also challenged the installation of the field lighting under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).  In connection with the various athletic facilities upgrades at Hoover, the District prepared an Initial Study and a Mitigated Negative Declaration (“MND”).  The District determined that the project, as mitigated, would not have a significant effect on the environment.  The Taxpayers argued that the field lighting would create excessive light trespass on the neighboring homes and have a negative impact on the “quality and feel of the neighborhood.”

Rejecting these arguments, the court held that a generalized desire of community members “to come home to peace and calm, not bright lights and noise” did not constitute substantial evidence that the lights would have a significant effect on the environment within the meaning of CEQA.  Further, the court explained that an analysis under CEQA turns on whether the project will affect the environment of “persons in general, not whether a project will affect particular persons.”  However, the court found that there was a lack of data to support the District's conclusion that the evening games permitted by the new lighting would not have traffic and parking impacts.  Therefore, it ordered the District to vacate its approval of the MND and cause an Environmental Impact Report to be prepared. 

This case, which was ordered published on April 25, 2013, serves as guidance for school districts when drafting general obligation bond proposition language.  Further, school districts that have issued general obligation bonds should review their measure or proposition language with counsel to ensure that the intended use of proceeds falls within the scope of the voter authorization.  This case also highlights the importance of reviewing and documenting studies and data relating to the potential environmental impact of projects when determining the level of mitigation needed.  It is not known at this time if the District will ask the State Supreme Court to review the decision.  F3 will report any updates.           

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F3 NewsFlash prepared by Kathleen J. McKee and Lawrence Chan.
Kathy is a partner in the F3 San Diego office.
Lawrence is an associate in the F3 San Diego office.

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