Dispute officially ends between California Coastal Commission and Del Mar Fairgrounds board

By Joe Tash

A dispute spanning nearly two decades between two state agencies — the California Coastal Commission and the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds — ended Thursday, March 8, when the commission voted unanimously to approve a settlement over alleged California Coastal Act violations by the fairgrounds.

The action occurred at the commission’s meeting in Chula Vista, marking a stark contrast from earlier times, when relations between the two state agencies were antagonistic. Both sides praised the agreement, which calls for the 22nd DAA to spend nearly $5 million on habitat restoration and other environmental projects.

“It’s a great day for the people of San Diego County and the natural environment,” said fair board president Adam Day after the hearing.

“This is the sort of result that we really appreciate: a consensual resolution focused on the enhancement and protection of sensitive resources,” said Coastal Commission vice-chairman Mark Stone in a prepared statement.

Officials from the two agencies said they hope the agreement marks the beginning of a new, cooperative relationship between them.

The fair board approved the agreement at its meeting last month. Also in the works is a settlement of a lawsuit filed by Del Mar, Solana Beach and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority over the fairgrounds master plan, a blueprint for future development of the property.

Movement toward settling the two disputes came after Gov. Jerry Brown dismissed five members of the nine-member fair board and appointed five new members in 2011. Two members — Michael Alpert and Tom Chino — have since resigned, leaving two openings on the fair board.

The dispute with the Coastal Commission centered around alleged violations of the California Coastal Act. According to a staff report to the commission on its March 8 agenda, those alleged violations included the operation of a truck-driving school in a dirt lot also used for overflow parking during major events; the installation of concrete “rip-rap” to control erosion on the northern shore of the San Dieguito River; construction of concert stage at the west end of the fairgrounds, adjacent to wetlands; use of a 13,500-square-foot tent for youth volleyball past the date allowed by a commission permit; and placement of advertising billboards along Interstate 5.

Day said the agreement calls for the fairgrounds to correct the alleged violations and comply with the Coastal Act for future developments.

The 22nd DAA will spend some $5 million on projects stemming from the agreement over the next five to seven years, said Day.

Among those projects will be restoring the fairgrounds’ south overflow lot to wetlands, meaning the loss of about 1,500 parking spaces during events such as the San Diego County Fair and the Del Mar horse-racing meet.

The district agreed to remove the concrete rip-rap from the river bank and restore a 100-foot wetlands buffer along the southern edge of the south and east overflow lots and the golf driving range.

Other projects include construction of a portion of the Coast to Crest trail through the fairgrounds property and payment of $20,000 per year for five years to the River Park JPA to maintain the newly restored wetlands and buffer areas.

The agreement also calls for the 22nd DAA to provide free booth space to the Coastal Commission during the fair, to use for public education on coastal conservation issues, install interpretive signs along the restored areas and organize an annual river park cleanup.