DEL MAR — Del Mar Fairgrounds officials have to wait at least another month for a permit to officially continue using an unpaved lot east of Jimmy Durante Boulevard for its annual pumpkin patch, Christmas tree sales, parking and other events.
The California Coastal Commission voted 9-2 on Oct. 11 to continue the discussion until the November meeting after environmental groups, the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority and others opposed a proposal recommended by its staff.
According to the required permit application, the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which governs the state-owned fairgrounds, would restore a 9.5-acre unpaved dirt parcel known as the south overflow lot back to wetlands.
Because the fairgrounds would lose about 1,250 parking spaces as a result, the proposal would allow the 22nd DAA to continue using a parcel east of Jimmy Durante Boulevard for year-round temporary events such as the pumpkin patch, Christmas tree sales and parking, as well as additional future temporary events that include trailer storage during the fair and horse races.
The plan is part of a settlement the two agencies reached in March 2012 to resolve and mitigate past unpermitted development at the fairgrounds.
The south overflow lot restoration will cost the 22nd DAA an estimated $5 million to $7 million.
The 21-acre east lot is divided into thirds. The northern section, adjacent to existing development such as a hotel, is where the pumpkin patch and Christmas tree sales take place.
The 22nd DAA will also restore a 100-foot buffer along the southernmost part of the east lot. All temporary structures on any area would be subject to height and other limitations.
Another 10-acre portion of the east lot is where the golf driving range is located. That use would remain and the permit would allow additional year-round parking there.
The Coastal Commission received letters of support for the proposal from several area legislators, such as former state Sen. Christine Kehoe, current state Sens. Mark Wyland and Joel Anderson, interim San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and the mayors of many other cities, including Del Mar, where the fairgrounds is located.
“I can’t underestimate the importance of receiving a letter from Del Mar,” 22nd DAA Director David Watson said.
San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts, his predecessor Pam Slater-Price, representatives from several environmental groups and the JPA also said they support the plan, but with one modification.
They wanted the southern third of the east overflow lot to also be restored because a recent study indicates there are more wetlands there.
“The Coastal Commission issued a cease and desist order, then entered into a negotiated agreement with the 22nd DAA to gather more information about wetlands boundaries,” Roberts said. “The mandated study verified the presence of extensive wetlands on the east overflow lot. How can a commission charged with protecting the wetlands now allow them to be paved over?”
Roberts said approval of the permit without the modification “opens the door for legal challenges from many environmental groups.”
“After so much progress has been made toward mending fences, such challenges would be unfortunate,” he said. “Why ask for a delineation study and then ignore it?
“This does not adversely affect the operations of the fairgrounds,” Roberts added, even though restoring the southern third of the east lot to wetlands would result in the loss of an additional 1,400 parking spaces.
Several of the more than two dozen speakers said a traffic study indicates the fairgrounds could make up for the lost parking by restriping the existing lots and using offsite parking at Canyon Crest Academy and Cathedral Catholic High School.
Adam Day, who was the 22nd DAA president when the settlement was reached, said the speakers misinterpreted the traffic study.
“We can’t just restripe out lots and pick up that many spaces,” he said, adding that the study didn’t take into account lost spaces in the east lot.
He also said the offsite locations “are far from certain,” as they are out of the fairgrounds’ jurisdiction and would not be available when school is in session.
We cannot afford to lose 1,500 more spaces on top of 1,200 we’ve already lost, he said.
“My proudest accomplish as president, and I believe the crowning achievement of our board, was the historic agreement we entered into with you and your staff,” Day said to commissioners, calling the settlement “monumental and historic.”
“The attitude of our previous board … was that we were not subject to the Coastal Act,” he said, noting the current board opted to “sit down in a cooperative fashion to move forward together.”
“By not approving the permit, it brings us back to a point in time … when our two agencies” were on the verge of litigation and in the midst of a 15-year feud.
“I greatly hope that we don’t go there,” he said.
Day said the agreement was “a delicate balancing act,” and he would be willing to discuss further alternative mitigation impacts, including deeding in fee to an environmental group a 4.5-acre piece of property near the horse park east of Interstate 5.
“The suggestion by the JPA to give up any portion of the east overflow lot is a nonstarter,” he said. “It doesn’t work and it’s not good from an environmental standpoint.”
He said the wetlands in the south lot are considered prime, while those indicated in the east lot are degraded.
Dick Bobertz, JPA executive director, said his group would need time to consider accepting the parcel east of I-5 as mitigation.
Commissioners Greg Cox and Mark Vargas supported granting the permit, but their colleagues opted to continue the discussion to allow the stakeholders an opportunity to work out a compromise.
“I’m very disturbed by the fact that we’re going to lose that quantity of wetlands,” said Commissioner Dayna Bochco, who moved for the continuance.
“We asked for the wetlands delineation for a reason,” Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said. “It’s not as if we asked for a delineation and then had no intention of using the outcome.
“We do have new information now … that wasn’t known at the time that the order was agreed to,” she added. “I think this is very important.”
Shallenberger said she was reminded of the lyrics from the Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” that said “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
“We really cannot pave over wetlands without some very serious mitigation for it,” she said.
“We should never sacrifice wetlands for mere parking lots,” Encinitas resident Dietmar Rothe said.
Day said there are currently no requests to pave anything and to do so would require a separate Coastal Commission permit.
The next commission meeting is scheduled for Nov. 13 through Nov. 15 in Newport Beach.