Del Mar Fairgrounds wetlands restoration, fall race meet approved by Coastal Commission

By Joe Tash

The Del Mar fairgrounds received permission from the California Coastal Commission on Nov. 13 to begin holding a fall race meet in 2014, and to restore a dirt parking lot on the south side of its property into a natural wetlands habitat.

As part of its decision, the panel voted to allow the fairgrounds to continue using its entire east overflow lot for parking and other activities, such as pumpkin and Christmas tree sales, for the next 10 years.

Environmental groups, led by county Supervisor Dave Roberts and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, pressed the commission to order the fairgrounds to preserve a portion of the east lot as well as the entire south lot.

Officials with the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees the state-owned fairgrounds, said they could not afford to lose both the 1,200 parking spaces in the south lot, and another 1,500 spaces in the east lot.

The commission voted 7-3 to allow the continued use of the east lot, but required the fairgrounds to reapply for its permit in 10 years, and also to conduct two parking studies to look at alternative traffic and parking options.

“I think it was a fair compromise and seven out of 10 commissioners felt likewise,” said Fred Schenk, president of the 22nd DAA board. “It’s a balanced approach.”

River park officials, however, wanted the commission to order the 22nd DAA to phase out its use of the southern one-third of its east overflow lot over the next 10 years, as recommended by Coastal Commission staff. In seeking the additional land for restoration, river park officials cited a study commissioned by the fairgrounds, which showed that a 4-acre section of the east lot had the potential to be transformed back into wetlands if it was no longer graded or used for parking.

At its October meeting, the commission delayed a decision on the permit to allow the two sides to attempt to work out a compromise. At the time, the commission’s staff recommended approval of the permit without restrictions on the use of the east lot.

“It was disappointing,” said river park JPA executive director Dick Bobertz of this week’s decision by the commission. “Particularly since the Coastal Commission staff had come around from their first recommendation to basically agree with us that the southern one-third (of the east overflow lot) should be preserved.”

Proponents of preserving the additional land said the 22nd DAA’s own parking study showed there were options to make up for the loss of parking. But 22nd DAA board member Adam Day disagreed, contending that the additional loss of parking from the east lot would have dealt “a devastating blow to our operations.”

Roberts praised the commission’s decision, noting that neither side got exactly what it wanted.

“I believe the Coastal Commission found a way to keep the possibility of preserving more wetlands open, while allowing the fairgrounds to continue operations while we work together to seek a solution,” he said.

The river park JPA will continue to urge that the southernmost portion of the east lot be restored to wetlands, said Bobertz, even if it means waiting for 10 years.

“That’s our strong point. We never go away,” he said.

The second permit approved by the commission on Nov. 13 brings the fairgrounds into compliance with coastal regulations for activities on its main property, and also allows a fall race meet to begin next year, in addition to the regular summer meet from late July through early September.

The fall race meet will run from Nov. 5 through Dec. 7.