SAN DIEGO — Residents living near Surf Cup Sports Park on Via de la Valle are bringing the City of San Diego to court for what they say is a continued failure to crack down on prohibited operations at the soccer fields.
The lawsuit, filed on April 13 in Vista Superior Court by the Fairbanks Polo Club Homeowners Association, alleges the city has allowed youth soccer operator Surf Cup Sports to hold activities at the 80-acre site, previously used as the Del Mar polo fields, far beyond what the site’s grant deed allows.
The lawsuit’s central grievance is the city has allowed Surf to host events up to 200 days out of the year, often in the form of large soccer tournaments with thousands of people, despite the 1983 deed setting a limit of 25 days of events annually and restricting operations to “passive non-commercial uses.”
“The City has allowed the frequency, size and nature of activities and events on the property to expand every year well beyond the 25-day limit and has permitted, if not encouraged, plainly commercial uses involving large assemblages of people or automobiles, with little regard for the Grant Deed restrictions to the contrary,” the complaint reads.
A representative for San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott did not comment on the allegations in the lawsuit.
“Our office will review the complaint and respond through the courts,” spokesperson Leslie Wolf Branscomb said.
A first hearing in the case has been scheduled for Sept. 29 at the Vista Courthouse with Judge Earl Maas III.
The property was originally deeded to the city in the 1980s as a way to preserve open space in the face of nearby residential development, with the accompanying grant deed requiring the city to keep the land “in its natural condition as near as possible to maintain it as rural, public open space.”
San Diego entered into a formal lease with Surf in 2016. Before that, the land was leased to the Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club since 1986, with Surf also using the fields since the 90s under a sublease.
The background of the 25-day limit in the grant deed is confusing, at best, with its status changing several times in recent years.
The deed did not originally mention any day restriction until a 2002 amendment was made, setting a limit of 25 days of events per calendar year. In 2014, the city and previous grantor Ocean Industries Inc. agreed to another amendment allowing 25 events per year, including those lasting multiple days.
However, Ocean Industries retracted this amendment in 2016, again establishing the 25-day limit.
A Surf Cup Sports representative said they were not surprised by the lawsuit. They have fielded complaints from the same individuals regarding their operations and alleged violations of the deed agreement for several years.
They noted the courts had supported them in the past, such as when Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley unsuccessfully sued San Diego for not requiring a California Environmental Quality Act review for Surf’s lease in 2016, and that they believe they’ll prevail in this case as well.
“We’ve basically been threatened with this deed challenge since 2016,” Surf said. “What gets lost in this negativity is all the good that we do. The things that should really matter are the fact that kids come in on a day in, day out basis and get to realize their dreams.”
Interpreting a decades-old document
The homeowners association’s suit marks the latest development in the years of contentious back-and-forth between the city and neighbors since Surf Cup entered into their 26-year lease.
In the years leading up to the lawsuit, several residents have repeatedly emailed, called and met with city officials and the lease management office, urging them to clarify whether Surf’s activities are allowable under the grant deed.
Many have also raised concerns about increased traffic, noise and light pollution from Surf’s activities, with the San Dieguito Planning Group, Carmel Valley Planning Board and 22nd District Agricultural Association echoing these complaints.
District 1 Councilmember Joe LaCava, whose constituency includes those living directly near the fields, is among the officials who have been in continuous contact with residents about this issue. While his office declined to comment on the suit due to restrictions surrounding pending litigation, LaCava said in an April 2022 interview with The Coast News the city was limited by vague language in the deed agreement.
“Part of the challenge that we have is, the agreements, policies and regulations that were well intended when they were adopted, years later they realize they don’t have the details or the specificity or didn’t anticipate certain situations that would really be helpful today,” LaCava said at the time. “There’s some vagueness in the prior documents, and we’re trying to operate in that landscape.”
Those suing the city, however, insist the language of the grant deed is crystal clear.
“The city blithely dismisses its obligation to enforce the grant deed by characterizing it as ‘weak’ and ‘outdated’ and asserting that ‘things change with time,’” the suit says. “An actual controversy exists between FPCHA and the City as to whether the actions of the city … violate the restrictions, covenants and conditions expressly enumerated in the 1983 grant deed.”
Wave FC facility
The complaint also alleges the city has allowed Surf Cup to expand its activities at the fields even further with the presence of San Diego Wave FC, the area’s National Women’s Soccer League club.
Surf Cup entered into an agreement with Wave in early 2022, allowing the team to utilize an area of the property for training, meetings and locker rooms. The fields’ far east end is now a fenced-off area reserved for Wave with large trailers and other equipment.
A draft agreement with Wave, provided to the city by Surf, describes plans for developing “long-term facilities” that involve a modular training facility consisting of enjoined trailers and enclosing up to 25,000 square feet. It also describes the potential use of the adjacent 24-acre property, purchased by Surf Cup in April, to construct “more permanent improvements” for the team.
Wave did not reply to a request for comment.