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Board approves fairground expansion plans

By Bianca Kaplanek
DEL MAR — Despite requests to delay action on expansion plans at the Del Mar Fairgrounds from nearly two-thirds of the speakers at an April 18 meeting, the
22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors voted unanimously to certify the final environmental impact report and move the project forward.
As part of the EIR process, board members were considering five alternatives, two of which included no new development and two that were eventually rejected.
After listening to 90 minutes of public testimony from about 30 people, directors selected an option that deleted a proposed 330-room hotel/condominium, which Chairman Barry Nussbaum said was “not financially viable for the foreseeable future.”
It was also an aspect of the project that was “the most resoundingly unacceptable to the public,” he said, adding that the board “wants to address the needs and wants of the community.”
The option chosen is considered the environmentally superior alternative because it has fewer impacts. Compared to the other choices, it would reduce but not avoid traffic, noise and decreased air quality. It also means the fire station will remain in its current location, eliminating a potential increase in siren noise in residential areas.
Near-term projects include replacing older exhibit halls with a building that will feature lighted rooftop sports fields, realigning the Solana Gate entrance, paving the east parking lot and widening the turf track by 25 percent.
Plans also call for the addition of a 60,000-square-foot health club, administrative offices and a 48-foot-tall, 192-square-foot, two-sided electronic sign along Interstate 5.
Long-term projects include a permanent seasonal train platform, a multilevel parking structure and rebuilding stables and living quarters.
Residents and officials from nearby cities say the project is too big and would result in myriad negative impacts. The fair board said the expansion is necessary to update the aging, 300-plus acre facility and to make up for a decline in horse racing revenue.
Board members amended the master plan to allow for public workshops and increased community input to refine and review design plans for the exhibit halls, rooftop sports facilities and freeway sign. They will also seek public input to determine how best to light the facility at night.
At the request of Director Ruben Barreles, the board agreed to direct staff to expedite the conversion of the south lot back to open space and wetlands. They also approved a minimum 100-foot greenway on the south end of the site once construction begins on the exhibit halls.
Not all board members agreed with the changes. Barreles and Adam Day did not support any signage along the freeway. Barreles and Kim Fletcher opposed any nighttime lighting except during the fair.
The draft EIR was available for public review and comment from October 2009 to February 2010, almost double the time required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The final EIR, which includes required responses to all comments made on the draft EIR, was available for review April 8, the minimum amount of time allowed before the meeting at which it will be acted upon.
The 22nd DAA received but denied requests from Solana Beach and Del Mar to extend the 10-day period to review the 1,000-plus page document.
Nussbaum said it would be “inappropriate” to act against the advice of fairgrounds attorneys and postpone the meeting.
“A delay at this point would start a whole new loop in the process (with no benefits),” Nussbaum said, adding that there were “no surprises” in the final EIR. Most of the document “is as it has been for the past 18 months,” he said.
He said the purpose of the meeting was not to begin a new round of comments and responses, however, many complained that several comments provided on the draft EIR were rejected as opinion and not responded to in the final EIR.
Deputy Attorney General Marian Moe said the final EIR met all the requirements of CEQA. “I think that the document is very defensible,” she said.
There were also complaints that holding the meeting at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday precluded the working public from attending. While most speakers were from the adjacent cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach, longtime Encinitas resident Janie DeCelles took time off from work to attend.
“All of the towns along the coast are impacted,” she said. “I want you guys to think about your legacy. To allow only 10 days to (review the final EIR) is irresponsible.”
“What’s the hurry?” asked Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner. “Why are you rushing to certify this EIR?”
Heebner said as the city of Del Mar seeks to purchase the state-owned facility to gain local control, board members have asked what it is about the current governance they want to change.
“It is just this type of behavior we are trying to fix,” she said.
Fletcher, a longtime Del Mar resident whose family helped developed the city, said the board had been “unfairly chastised” by some people for its actions.
“I hope today we satisfied many of your concerns,” he said. “Let’s all be happy and be good neighbors.”
“It’s a far better project than it was before this meeting, but it has a long way to go before it reaches the appropriate balance,” Del Mar Councilman Carl Hilliard said. “They are finally talking about consulting with Del Mar.”
Although Barreles said the modifications that allow for additional public input should address most of the major concerns, he wasn’t completely optimistic going forward.
“We’re going to get sued,” he said. “That’s a given.”