Conflict over land near Del Mar Fairgrounds a potential threat to state agencies agreement

By Joe Tash

A dispute over a 4-acre piece of land next to the Del Mar Fairgrounds threatens to derail an agreement between two state agencies meant to settle a decades-old battle over alleged violations of the California Coastal Act.

Eighteen months ago, the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds, and the California Coastal Commission struck a deal to end the bad blood between the two agencies stemming from alleged Coastal Act violations by the fairgrounds.

The Coastal Commission, at a hearing in San Diego on Friday, Oct. 11, considered a permit application by the 22nd DAA to settle one major element of the dispute. Under the March 2012 accord, the 22nd DAA agreed to spend $5 million to $7 million restore its south overflow parking lot, a 9.5-acre dirt area used during major events such as the San Diego County Fair and annual summer horse racing meet, into wetlands habitat.

In return, the Coastal Commission said the fairgrounds could use its east overflow lot, another dirt area, for event parking and other purposes such as storage, and annual pumpkin and Christmas tree sales. The 22nd DAA was required to apply for a permit regarding its plans for the two overflow lots.

On Friday, a coalition of environmental groups led by County Supervisor Dave Roberts and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, convinced the commission to postpone its decision on the permit until the panel’s November meeting.

At issue is the southernmost section of the east overflow lot, which the environmentalists said should also be set aside for future wetlands restoration.

The 22nd DAA balked at giving up the parcel, estimated at 4 acres.

“It does not work. We can’t afford to lose 1,500 parking spaces (from the east lot) on top of the 1,200 we’ve already lost (from the south lot),” said 22nd DAA board member Adam Day, who helped negotiate the deal with the Coastal Commission.

After the commission voted 9-2 to postpone its decision, Day said, “If we can’t use the east overflow lot, then there’s no deal. It’s all inter-connected.” If the deal falls apart, Day said, the 22nd DAA would not restore the south overflow lot to wetlands.

But Roberts and others from the environmental groups said the 22nd DAA does have other options for parking, which were identified in a parking study conducted by the agency. One option was to use the parking lot at Cathedral Catholic High School on Del Mar Heights Road as a satellite parking lot, where fair- and race-goers could catch shuttle buses to the fairgrounds.

Roberts said he is willing to clear his calendar to work on a compromise between the two sides. “I will try to do whatever I can to come up with a compromise that works for all.”

Commissioners Greg Cox (a San Diego County supervisor) and Mark Vargas were ready to vote for the permit Friday, supporting the recommendation of Coastal Commission staff. However, other commissioners said they were concerned their decision could result in the destruction of rare wetlands habitat.

River Park JPA officials and others who asked the commission to bar the fairgrounds from using the lower one-third of the east overflow lot cited a study commissioned by the fairgrounds, which identified the 4 acres of property as wetlands.

“The wetlands can’t speak for itself. I’m hopeful the commission will speak for the wetlands today,” said Dick Bobertz, executive director of the river park. The JPA was created by five local cities and the county of San Diego to create and maintain a 55-mile linear park and trail system running from Julian to the coast at Del Mar. The western end of the “Coast to Crest” trail runs alongside the fairgrounds overflow lots, at the mouth of the San Dieguito River.

The arguments of Bobertz and other environmentalists hit their mark with some members of the Coastal Commission.

“I’m reminded of Joni Mitchell,” said Commission Chairwoman Mary Shallenberger, quoting from one of the popular singer-songwriter’s hit songs: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

One reason for the postponement was to give the two sides time to discuss a compromise offered by the 22nd DAA. Day said the agency would be willing to sign over title to a 5-acre parcel of land it owns next to its horse park property, which is on the east side of Interstate 5, to a local environmental group such as the River Park JPA. The intent would be to compensate for the loss of the wetlands in the east overflow lot.

Asked by a commission member if that would be an acceptable compromise, Bobertz said, “We would need time to look at that and consider it.”

“I urge all parties to get together quickly and work hard and come back before us soon,” Shallenberger said.

Also on its November agenda, the Coastal Commission is tentatively scheduled to consider another permit application from the 22nd DAA, covering activities and events on the main fairgrounds property, including a proposed fall horse race meet that would begin in 2014.