By Joe Tash
State Sen. Christine Kehoe and members of the Del Mar fair board agree that a green belt and public trail between the fairgrounds and the north bank of the San Dieguito River is a good idea. Where they disagree is how to achieve that goal.
Kehoe has introduced a bill, SB 1177, that would require a 100-foot buffer along the river for about one mile, including a public trail and restoration of native plants.
Fair board members and staff, however, believe Kehoe's bill as written would hinder operations of the fairgrounds, cut into revenue and pose public safety risks.
The gap between the sides was not bridged last Friday, when Kehoe met with fairgrounds officials and walked along the south side of the fairgrounds with them to gauge the impact of the proposed legislation.
Kehoe said after the meeting that she decided to introduce her bill to preserve the land along the north side of the river because officials with the 22nd District Agricultural Association, the agency that oversees the state-owned fairgrounds, have proposed a sweeping master plan update calling for major changes to the property.
Among the elements of the proposed master plan, which is now undergoing environmental review, would be demolition of existing exhibit halls, construction of a 330-room condominium hotel and new exhibit buildings, and relocation of maintenance facilities away from the south side of the fairgrounds.
"It is a wonderful opportunity to change the use along there and make a permanent public open space and restore the river bank to the water's edge," Kehoe said.
"I think walking along the river there just is so inviting, I would like to think anybody who had the opportunity to walk along there would think this should be a public park ... especially on property already owned by the people," she said.
Fairgrounds officials, however, said a green belt and trail is already in place along three-fourths of the stretch of river where Kehoe envisions a public park, and the fairgrounds master plan calls for completion of the final segment of the trail and buffer.
"We were a little bit surprised Sen. Kehoe was proposing to do the exact same thing we were planning to do," said Russ Penniman, a member of the fair board and a Rancho Santa Fe resident.
"It's totally unnecessary," said fairgrounds CEO and general manager Tim Fennell of SB 1177. "We're committed to it; it's in our master plan."
According to Fennell, the green belt and trail contained in the master plan update would range from 30 to 105 feet wide.
Kehoe said the fairgrounds plan does not include the restoration of native plants to the river's edge to attract birds and other local species, and the width of the proposed trail is not sufficient to accommodate multiple uses such as people walking, bicycling and pushing children in strollers.
She also questioned the fair board's claim that under her bill, the fairgrounds would have to cancel numerous trade shows and lose other revenue. She said it seems unlikely that setting aside less than 4 percent of the fairgrounds property for public open space would push the fairgrounds toward insolvency.
"That just doesn't make sense to me," she said.
However, Fennell said the bill as proposed would restrict operations, because the access road on the southern edge of the fairgrounds is needed for exhibitors and vendors to bring merchandise and equipment into and out of the exhibit halls. The road is also vital for emergency access by fire trucks and ambulances during major events such as the San Diego County Fair, he said.
Along with the width of the green belt proposed by Kehoe's bill, the timing also would be disruptive, because it calls for completion of the buffer and trail by Jan. 1, 2014, said Fennell. If the proposed fairgrounds master plan receives all necessary approvals, said Fennell, construction wouldn't begin for at least five years, giving officials plenty of time to construct the new facilities and extend the public trail and green belt without disrupting fairground operations.
"If this bill goes through I'm concerned about us meeting our debt covenant," said Fennell. The fair board and a related agency, the Race Track Authority, owe some $50 million on bonds used to finance the grandstand and other projects at the fairgrounds. A third board, the Race Track Leasing Commission, oversees horseracing operations.
Kehoe has held a number of meetings with fairgrounds officials and said she is willing to work with them. But she is moving forward with her bill, which will come before the Senate agriculture committee on April 6. If the full Senate approves the bill it would next go to the state Assembly for consideration.
Fairgrounds officials, though, have asked Kehoe to withdraw the bill.
"Until staff can convince me this bill is not going to negatively impact our ability to meet our covenant on our bonds, I will be against this bill and use all means available (to oppose it) and I will encourage all board members on all three boards to do the same," said Penniman.