Solana Beach asks court to reverse approval of fairgrounds sports wagering

Renovations underway in 2020 at the Surfside Race Place at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Renovations underway in 2020 at the Surfside Race Place at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which could offer sports betting next year.

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Solana Beach has asked the San Diego Superior Court to overturn the 22nd District Agricultural Association’s approval of sports wagering at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The 22nd DAA, also known as the Del Mar fair board, voted unanimously in September 2021 to allow betting on events such as Aztec and Padres games at the Surfside Race Place off-track wagering center, but only if California voters approve sports wagering on the November 2022 ballot.

More than 20 states have legalized sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that a 25-year-old law prohibiting the activity outside Nevada was unconstitutional. Del Mar fair board members said the additional wagering could be a significant income for the fairgrounds.

Solana Beach sees it differently. The seaside neighbor of Del Mar gets many of the fairgrounds’ negatives, such as noise, traffic and litter, but few of the positives, primarily the profits.

“The district’s action will result in the expansion and redevelopment of existing facilities and a significant increase in activities and attendance at the fairgrounds, which will result in significant adverse effects on environmental resources and residents in the surrounding areas,” states the city’s petition for an injunction filed March 10 in Superior Court.

Expanded gambling at Del Mar, which now only handles wagering on horse racing, would result in “significant increases in air pollutant emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic, noise and other adverse effects,” the petition states, and the fairgrounds should be required to complete an environmental review before approving the project.

Asked about the petition on Monday, Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner said the city’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

Sports wagering could be a significant source of income for the 22nd DAA.

The increased revenue is expected to come primarily from the annual rent that the Thoroughbred Club pays to host events at the center, but also from related things such as food and beverage sales. The Thoroughbred Club, which is a separate entity from the DAA, would hire the sports book operator and oversee the partnership.

The fairgrounds has been in a financial downslide since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 San Diego County Fair, which provides more than half the fairgrounds’ annual revenue. A downsized fair was held in 2021, and this year’s fair set to open June 8 faces problems because of a dispute over the master contract to run the popular midway activities.

It’s not the first time Solana Beach has taken issue with a project at the fairgrounds.

The city filed a lawsuit in 2017 opposing the fair board’s approval of a $13 million renovation of the Surfside Race Place off-track betting center to add a 1,900-seat concert venue. Solana Beach also cited concerns about traffic, air quality and noise from the concert venue.

However, a few months later the city and the fair board approved a memorandum of understanding that addressed any negative impacts to both parties’ satisfaction.

Completion of the concert venue was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it now is expected to open later this year. The auditorium and related facilities occupy about two-thirds of the off-track betting center, with the remaining one-third still available for wagering, meetings and special events.

Fairgrounds officials have not said what alterations may be needed at the center to accommodate sports betting.