California Coastal Commission to consider approval of coastal development permits for operations at the Del Mar Fairgrounds

By Joe Tash

The California Coastal Commission will soon consider whether to approve a pair of coastal development permits for operations at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which could finally resolve legal disputes between two sister state agencies that date back for more than two decades.

The permit applications submitted by the 22nd District Agricultural Association, the entity that runs the state-owned fairgrounds, arose from an agreement reached last year between the Coastal Commission and the 22nd DAA.

The agreement contains two major components: One is a compromise calling for the 22nd DAA to restore its south overflow lot — a 9.5-acre parcel along the San Dieguito River used for parking during the fair and horse racing meets — to wetlands habitat. In exchange, the fairgrounds will be allowed to continue using its east overflow lot near Interstate 5 for parking, seasonal pumpkin and Christmas tree sales, and other activities.

The commission will consider this permit at its meeting on Oct. 11 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in San Diego.

The second permit involves activities and projects on the main fairgrounds property, bringing all fairgrounds events into compliance with the California Coastal Act. That permit is tentatively scheduled for the commission’s November meeting in Newport Beach. The second permit application also contains a request for a fall horse racing meet starting in November 2014, which would be in addition to the current summer race meet.

On Friday (Sept. 27), Coastal Commission staff posted its report for the Oct. 11 meeting, in which it recommends approval of the first permit involving the south and east overflow lots.

The report said the use of fill in the east overflow lot violates the Coastal Act policy of protecting wetlands, but denial of the permit would also have negative effects. For example, said the report, the 22nd DAA would not be required to restore the south overflow lot.

“As there are no less impactful feasible alternatives, the Commission, utilizing conflict resolution, finds that on balance, approval of the permit as conditioned represents the greatest protection of coastal resources,” concluded the report.

22nd DAA board president Adam Day said the permit applications are intended to finally resolve bad blood and acrimony between the two state agencies that had simmered for decades. Efforts to reach a compromise over alleged Coastal Act violations by the fairgrounds began in earnest after a slate of new 22nd DAA board members was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, and Day was elected board president. Day worked with board member David Watson, a land-use attorney, on negotiating the settlement.

“Everything we’re asking the Coastal Commission to do is completely consistent with the settlement agreement that we have with them,” said Day. “We need these permits to continue to operate our year-round activities as well as to host a fall (horse racing) meet.”

The 22nd DAA is agreeing to undertake a number of steps to protect the environment, such as installing a state-of-the-art storm water runoff system, which would be needed if the fall race meet is approved, said Watson. That’s because the fall meet would take place during San Diego’s rainy season.

“This is a really good deal for the environment and a good deal for the fair. And it demonstrates that the fair can operate under the Coastal Act,” Watson said. “What these permits are is the final implementation of the agreement reached in the consent orders. They’re the last steps in what has been a two-year process to resolve all these issues.”

But some believe the 22nd DAA should do more to protect sensitive wetlands.

Third District County Supervisor Dave Roberts, who served on the Solana Beach City Council before his election to the Board of Supervisors last year, said a report commissioned by the 22nd DAA shows that some of the east lot should be designated as wetlands, and the district’s parking study determined off-site locations could handle overflow during fairgrounds events.

“By law, I don’t know how the Coastal Commission can approve their application for the (east) overflow lot and not destroy wetlands,” said Roberts.

Roberts is also a member of the board of directors of the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, which oversees a linear park that stretches from Julian to the coast at Del Mar. The JPA board’s official position is that the fairgrounds should not be able to use either overflow lot for parking, except for the east lot during the fair and summer race meet.

Roberts said he would like the fairgrounds to compromise with environmentalists by agreeing to use only part of the east overflow lot for parking, and set the most environmentally sensitive portion aside as open space.

“My goal is to find consensus, I want to help,” said Roberts.

But Day said the agreement has already reduced the fairground’s parking capacity by 20 percent. “We felt the pain at this year’s fair,” he said. The fairgrounds will absorb the loss of parking through aggressive traffic and parking management, such as encouraging visitors and employees to use public transportation and carpooling whenever possible.

Setting aside more land from the east lot, he said, would be impractical both financially and in terms of impact on the fairgrounds’ parking capacity, and is not environmentally necessary. Such a requirement would unravel the “finely woven tapestry of competing needs and interests” represented by the agreement with the Coastal Commission.

Watson said the east overflow lot does not meet the federal definition of wetlands.

Through the agreement, “I think we’ve satisfied all requirements for true wetlands and true marsh,” he said.