By Joe Tash
A lawsuit filed by an environmental group could overturn a deal struck by the California Coastal Commission that cleared the way for a multi-million-dollar habitat restoration project at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
The commission reached the agreement in 2012 with the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds, and then approved permits for the work in November. Under the agreement, the 22nd DAA will spend more than $5 million to restore a 9.5-acre dirt lot along the San Dieguito River to wetlands habitat.
In return, the 22nd DAA was to be allowed to continue using its east overflow lot along Interstate 5 – which is also unpaved — for parking, seasonal pumpkin and Christmas tree sales, and other activities.
But at hearings in October and November, environmental groups, including the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, argued that a portion of the east overflow lot should also be preserved for future habitat restoration, because a study identified it as a wetland area.
The commission decided in November that the 22nd DAA could continue using its east overflow lot for 10 years, and would then have to reapply for its permit.
This month, the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club sued the Coastal Commission, seeking to overturn its decision on the 22nd DAA permits.
Commission staff acknowledged in a report last fall that the use of the east overflow lot violates a California Coastal Act policy that requires wetlands to be protected. But the report said the agreement with the 22nd DAA should be approved because, overall, it resulted in the greatest protection of coastal resources.
That logic is flawed, said attorney Josh Chatten-Brown, who represents the Sierra Club.
“We’re asking the court to set aside the approval of the two permits that authorize parking on the wetlands,” said Chatten-Brown. “The Coastal Act does not allow the filling of wetlands for parking, it’s just not allowed.”
Fairgrounds officials have said they cannot afford to lose 1,200 parking spaces through the restoration of the south overflow lot, and another 1,500 spaces by setting aside a portion of the east overflow lot.
At the time of the commission’s vote in November, 22nd DAA board president Fred Schenk called it a fair compromise, because the district must reapply for its permit for the east overflow lot in 10 years, and also complete two traffic and parking studies to consider alternatives to the use of the east overflow lot.
“We’re clearly disappointed” by the lawsuit, said Schenk. “We worked very hard to come up with a compromise that is fair, by giving up as much acreage as we have, and parking, and committing to a $5 million restoration of the wetlands.”
“The public expects public officials to come together and work together and we did just that,” he said.
The 22nd DAA board planned to discuss the lawsuit during a closed session following its public meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14. Although the district was not named in the lawsuit, Schenk said it will likely hire counsel and work with the commission on defending against the lawsuit, because the 22nd DAA’s permits could be affected by the outcome of the legal action.
In the meantime, Schenk said, work on the restoration of the south overflow lot will move forward, and the board also directed staff to begin work on the first of the required traffic and parking studies.
From the Sierra Club’s perspective, the district should stop using the lower one-third of the east overflow lot so that it can return to natural wetlands habitat, said Chatten-Brown. The lawsuit asks the court to overturn the commission’s decision granting the two permits which allow continued use of the full east overflow lot.
County Supervisor Dave Roberts supported the River Park JPA and other environmental groups last fall, testifying before the commission that the lower one-third of the east overflow lot should be preserved. Following the commission’s vote in November, he praised the action as a reasonable compromise.
Roberts, in a statement released by his office Tuesday, said, “I have always been in favor of a compromise that protects our rapidly vanishing wetlands and the operations of the 22nd District Agricultural Association. It is important to all San Diegans that they co-exist. But now the issue will be decided in the courts. It’s unfortunate, but everyone will have to live by the court’s ruling.”