Two Del Mar Fairgrounds legal disputes may be on the verge of settlement

By Joe Tash

Two contentious legal issues that have dogged the Del Mar Fairgrounds for years — one an allegation of Coastal Act violations by the state officials and the other a lawsuit filed by neighboring jurisdictions over plans for redeveloping the fairgrounds — may both be on the verge of settlement.

The proposed settlements were announced Wednesday night (Feb. 15) by Adam Day, president of the board of directors of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, the entity that runs the state-owned fairgrounds.

According to Day, the board voted unanimously in closed session to approve two settlement agreements, one with the California Coastal Commission and the other with the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority.

The 22nd DAA has agreed to spend about $5 million over the next five years on a series of environmental measures to settle its dispute with the Coastal Commission which spans more than a decade, said Day.

Details of the lawsuit settlement have not yet been made public.

In an interview, Day characterized the potential settlements as “monumental,” and said they indicate the fair board’s willingness to set aside past differences and establish better working relationships with other governmental agencies.

“I’m hopeful this will be the start of the new era of close collaboration and cooperation between our district and the Coastal Commission and surrounding cities and residents of the region,” Day said. “This new board wants to start fresh, and with these actions, we’re putting our money where our mouth is, literally and figuratively.”

The nine-member, unpaid 22nd DAA board is appointed by the governor. Last year, incoming Gov. Jerry Brown dismissed five board members and appointed five new members. Wednesday’s vote on the settlements came one day after new board member Tom Chino resigned, citing his inability to pass reforms in the operations of the fair board to make its work more transparent and open to the public.

The proposed settlement with the Coastal Commission was negotiated over the past six weeks by Day and fair board member David Watson, working with Coastal Commission staff, said Day. The Coastal Commission is scheduled to consider the proposed settlement at its March 8 meeting in Chula Vista.

Among the actions agreed to by the fair board as part of the settlement are:

•Restoring the entire south overflow lot at the fairground to wetlands, meaning a loss of about 1,500 parking spaces during major events such as the San Diego County Fair and Del Mar horse races.

•Restoring a 100-foot wetlands buffer along the southern edge of the south and east overflow lots and the golf driving range.

•Construction of a portion of the Coast to Crest Trail (which is planned to run from the beach at Del Mar to the mountains near Julian) and a buffer along the southern and western edges of the fairgrounds property.

•Removal of concrete rip-rap from the north shore of the San Dieguito River and restoration of the area.

•Paying the River Park JPA $20,000 per year for five years to maintain the newly restored wetlands and buffer areas.

The proposed settlement also calls for the 22nd DAA to provide complimentary booth space during the fair for public education on coastal conservation issues, install interpretive signs along the restored areas, organize an annual river park cleanup and take other steps related to outreach and education.

The lawsuit was filed against the district in May by the two cities and the river park JPA. It alleges deficiencies in the environmental impact report prepared for the 22nd DAA’s new master plan, including analysis of traffic, lighting, noise and pollution.

The master plan approved by the fair board in April includes replacement of two 50-year-old exhibit halls, widening the turf track used for horse racing, and adding a health club, parking garage and an electronic reader board sign visible from Interstate 5. The board scratched controversial plans to build a hotel-condo on the property.

Day said all four parties have agreed to “settlement points” regarding the lawsuit, and the next step will be for attorneys representing the entities to draft a formal agreement. Once that is completed, the agreement will be presented to the court, and it is anticipated the lawsuit would be dropped, Day said. He said he hopes the agreement can be finalized within the next 30 days.

Del Mar Mayor Carl Hilliard said two months ago, his city and Solana Beach put forward a proposal to settle the lawsuit, and he said it appears the fair board has accepted that proposal. But he said he had not seen the proposed settlement approved by the board.

“Until we see the details, we won’t know if we have an opportunity to settle this or not,” Hilliard said. “It certainly seems promising.”

Solana Beach Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said the council is scheduled to discuss the lawsuit in closed session at its meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 22, and that approval of a settlement could be announced at that time.

Dick Bobertz, executive director of the River Park JPA, said he was instructed by attorneys not to discuss the lawsuit, or a potential settlement, until both sides sign a final agreement. But he did confirm that the lawsuit was discussed by the JPA board at its meeting Friday morning (Feb. 17) and the board gave instructions to its attorney. The board also authorized the attorney to settle the lawsuit if its conditions are met, without an additional board vote.