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Del Mar seeks support for purchasing fairgrounds

COAST CITIES — Because it’s directly adjacent to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Solana Beach has always been impacted by events held at the site, but the city has never had much say in addressing those issues.
So when Del Mar asked its northern neighbor for a letter to support its proposed purchase of the facility, Solana Beach officials were in no hurry to do so without some guarantees they would be more involved in solving ongoing problems with noise, traffic, parking and public safety reimbursement.
During their Oct. 27 meeting to consider drafting a letter of support, Solana Beach City Council members said they favored local control of the 340-acre site. Del
Mar Councilwoman Crystal Crawford said that’s all her city is asking for at this point.
“Do they want to support continued status quo or are they interested in supporting local control — ownership by Del Mar which then creates a form of governance that allows for input from the surrounding cities in the region?” she asked at an Oct. 25 Del Mar meeting held specifically to discuss the issue.
Crawford said that’s “the fundamental question” she asked other cities such as San Diego, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Encinitas and Lemon Grove that have sent letters supporting the $120 million purchase.
“Our primary purpose is to ensure that this property remains in local control and isn’t sold to a private developer like what we’re seeing with the Orange County Fair,” Crawford said.
(Oceanside City Councilman Jerry Kern said his mayor may have sent a support letter but the council hadn’t discussed it publicly yet. At press time, that was the case for most cities.)
Crawford said it is too early in the process to make specific promises about mitigating impacts, which she and her colleagues agree are the same for both cities.
“It’s a little bit difficult … to give a list of specific responses to some of these concerns when we still have many hurdles to clear,” she said. “The issues that are raised are the very ones that concern our residents.”
In a letter to Solana Beach, Del Mar agreed to jointly review traffic management plans to improve traffic flow, including the possible addition of a direct access ramp from the freeway.
“We’re certainly up for ways to solve parking issues,” Del Mar Councilman Carl Hilliard said.
To deal with sound issues, Del Mar will focus on horse racing and the fair rather than noise-intensive activities such as motorcycle racing, the letter stated.
The city also agreed to find ways to compensate Solana Beach for the public safety services it provides.
Del Mar also committed to working together on a master plan for the site. Everyone agreed they don’t want what the current fair board is proposing — an expansion plan that includes a convention center, condominium hotel and rooftop athletic fields, among other things.
“I think that the council has indicated that that expansion would not take place were we to own the fairgrounds,” Del Mar Councilman Don Mosier said.
Crawford noted that if the sale goes through, any issues will be addressed by the new governing board and not City Council.
Original plans were for the site to be governed by a nine-member board appointed by Del Mar that included the director of the San Dieguito River Valley Joint Powers Authority, five members from Del Mar, one from Solana Beach and one each from the city and county of San Diego.
Del Mar has since requested the sale terms include the addition of two additional members — a county appointee to represent agriculture and the San Diego Association of Governments executive director — resulting in Del Mar never having the majority vote.
That governance structure was the other main point of contention for Solana Beach. Council members said the city should have more representation on the board.
“We need more than one seat at the table,” Solana Beach Councilman Mike Nichols said.
“We only have one opportunity to get this right,” Solana Beach Mayor Tom Campbell said. “We need to have much more discussion and come to a better form of governance.”
During the public comment portion of the Solana Beach meeting, three former mayors shared similar concerns.
Solana Beach Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said an elected board might be a better way to go. “We have so many great examples of successful JPAs … where those are all electeds,” she said.
Last year the governor recommended selling the state-owned fairgrounds to help reduce California’s budget deficit.
Although the proposal was eventually taken off the table, Del Mar has been negotiating with the state for the past year to buy the site. As part of the sale agreement, the city must keep the property in the public domain and continue horse racing and the county fair.
An Assembly bill authorizing the sale was introduced and then pulled last month. It will be reintroduced this month if a special session is called or when the Legislature returns in December.
Meanwhile Del Mar and Solana Beach council members have agreed to discuss the support letter.
“We want to go down this road together,” Crawford said.