Sport of Kings in, fair parking out as polo field lease goes to Surf Cup

Sport of Kings in, fair parking out as polo field lease goes to Surf Cup
The city of San Diego is in negotiations with San Diego Surf Cup to take over the lease of the polo fields. Polo, soccer and other sports will continue on the property but overflow parking for the Del Mar Fairgrounds won’t be allowed. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

REGION — If the San Diego Polo Club opens its 30th season at an 80-acre field at Via del la Valle and El Camino Real, as it is scheduled to do in a few months, it will be as a tenant as the city of San Diego is currently negotiating with San Diego Surf Cup to take over the lease.

“We’re working on a schedule right now and we’re pretty confident we’ll have a really nice opening day on June 5,” Steve Lewandowski, community relations director for the polo club, said.

But a spokesman for the soccer club could not confirm or deny any such commitment.

“We’re respectful of the historic use of the fields for polo, and we definitely plan to include the sport,” Jim Madaffer said. “But no arrangements have been made with anyone.

“We’re still working on a plan,” he added. “We’re not ruling anything out and we will be talking to them but we’ve also been approached by other polo clubs. Nothing is set in stone with San Diego Polo or any other club.”

The Sport of Kings has been part of local history longer than the Padres or Chargers. This year it will celebrate its 110th anniversary in San Diego, having first been played in the county in 1906 as more of a business venture than an athletic competition.

Hoping to attract more visitors at the turn of the century, Hotel del Coronado owner John D. Spreckels built the nearby Coronado Country Club, which included three polo fields.

Following the first major tournament, which pitted English lords against American Navy officers, interest in the sport exploded, attracting millionaires and movie stars.

The game was played in various locations throughout the county until the San Diego Polo Club was founded in 1986 and made its permanent home in the San Dieguito River Valley.

The 120-acre site was deeded in 1982 to San Diego as mitigation for open space lost when increased residential development was allowed in the area.

In October 1984 it was divided into two usable parcels. Sixty acres were designated for a polo facility and 20 were authorized for an equestrian center. The other 40 acres were to remain open space.

In 1986 the San Diego Polo Club entered into a 26-year lease, which expired March 31, 2012. Since then it has been leasing the site on a month-to-month basis.

Because the property hadn’t been out to bid for more than two decades, city officials felt doing so was appropriate.

Three organizations responded to a request for proposals released late last year.

“Surf Cup presented the best proposal to the city, maximizing the financial return on this site while conforming with the restrictions inherent to this location,” Racquel Vasquez, the city’s senior public information officer, said.

“We gave it our best shot,” Lewandowski said. “Polo has been an integral part of the San Diego community.

“Right now things are evolving,” he added. “We’re moving forward in the spirit of cooperation and we look forward to a future with Surf to raise more money for charity, which is something we’ve always done.”

While specific terms of the lease will not be available until negotiations are complete, Madaffer said Surf Cup requested a 25-year lease that includes $7 million for improvements to the property, contingent on receiving all necessary permits.

“Our proposal mirrors the existing restrictions but we have proposed an extensive capital improvement plan,” he said. “We will restore the Coast-to-Crest Trail and work with the Audubon Society to install bird-watching areas.

“In cooperation with the San Dieguito River Valley (Conservancy) we also plan to add an equestrian staging area so horse owners can park their trailers and ride the trail to where the turf really does meet the surf,” he added.

Plans also include a tie-up for horses, parking for trail visitors, upgraded restroom facilities and reconfigured drainage and irrigation on the fields.

To eliminate mud and dust, decomposed granite will replace the dirt trail areas.

“It will also include educational polo for kids who might not otherwise be able to afford to play the sport,” Madaffer said. “At Surf Cup we’re all about the kids, all about the youth.

“One thing is for certain,” he added. “We’re committed to maintaining some use of polo on the field. We want to work in partnership with the community.”

He said the fields will also be available for public use for other sports such as field hockey and lacrosse.

“That’s our way of giving back to the city and the community,” Madaffer said.

But the end result may be fewer events as a major focus will be on maintaining the health of the grass.

One activity that will not be added is overflow parking during the San Diego County Fair.

Officials at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, faced with losing 1,250 parking spaces this year, had been talking about potentially allowing additional parking on the property if Surf Cup was granted the lease.

“That’s not in our plan,” Madaffer said. “We had some preliminary conversations with the 22nd (District Agricultural Association) but there is a restriction that doesn’t allow parking for the fairgrounds.”

Once the lease negotiations are complete a recommendation will be given to the city’s Smart Growth and Land Use Committee and then presented to City Council for final approval.

This story has been corrected since its original posting.

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