More studies needed before Del Mar Fairgrounds upgrade can proceed

By Joe Tash

The state agency that oversees the Del Mar Fairgrounds will have to complete additional environmental studies before it can move forward with plans to upgrade the property, based on a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit against the agency.

The lawsuit was filed by the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club, and alleged that the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds, did not adequately address a series of environmental issues before approving an ambitious master plan for the property in 2011.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager, in a split decision issued Wednesday (Oct. 3), rejected some of the Sierra Club’s allegations and upheld others regarding the environmental impact report for the master plan.

The bottom line is that further environmental work will be required before the district can start any of the projects in the master plan, which includes construction of a new exhibit hall with underground parking, paving a large dirt parking lot, realigning the Solana Gate, building new offices and box office, adding an electronic reader board along Interstate 5 and construction of a health club and sports training facility.

Both sides interpreted the ruling as a victory.

“The overwhelming majority of complaints were rejected by the judge. This is a huge victory for the district and the taxpayers,” said Adam Day, president of the district’s board of directors.

Judge Prager provided “a very clear path to correct the minor deficiencies he has identified,” which should take two to three months, Day said, which in turn would clear the way for the district to move forward with fairgrounds improvements.

The first priority, Day said, would be to replace the fairgrounds’ aging exhibit halls —some of which are 60 years old — with “new, up-to-date, energy efficient, modern exhibit halls.”

But an attorney for the Sierra Club said it won’t be quite so simple to remedy the deficiencies in the environmental impact report identified by the judge.

In his ruling, Prager determined that the district must do additional work in four areas: traffic generation and mitigation, greenhouse gases and water supply.

“I’m pessimistic that it will be as easy as Mr. Day suggested that it might be,” said attorney Jan Chatten-Brown. “These issues are not going to be readily addressed, they are going to have to do some hard work.”

“It’s not a quote, fix-it ticket, that was the term the district’s counsel used in court. It’s not at all such a simple matter, there’s a fairly rigorous test that is applied,” Chatten-Brown said.

The fact that Prager sided with the Sierra Club on any of the issues it raised is a “game-changer,” said Chatten-Brown, and means the club prevailed in its legal action. The club is also entitled to have the district cover its legal fees, which will add up to more than $100,000, she said.

Prager’s 13-page ruling noted that the district’s environmental impact report was up to snuff in a number of areas, including wetlands, biological resources and aesthetics, along with baseline, long-term traffic impacts and direct access ramps.

Chatten-Brown said either side could appeal the parts of Prager’s ruling that went against it, or the two sides could try to settle of the remaining issues through negotiations.

The Sierra Club’s lawsuit isn’t the only legal challenge to the district’s master plan. A similar lawsuit was also filed last year by the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach and the joint powers authority that manages the San Dieguito River Park.

Earlier this year, it appeared the lawsuit by the two cities and the River Park JPA was close to being settled, but negotiations later stalled.

“Our board will be meeting in closed session on Tuesday (Oct. 9) to consider the settlement negotiations in light of the recent judge’s decision,” Day said.

Del Mar Mayor Carl Hilliard said the Sierra Club prevailed on several “major issues” and was optimistic that a settlement could be reached to the Del Mar-Solana Beach-JPA lawsuit.

“The effect of the judgment is to encourage and open the door for further settlement discussions,” Hilliard said. “Now that certain issues have been decided we can hopefully settle the rest.”

A status conference on the lawsuit is set for Oct. 19, also before Judge Prager, Hilliard said.