DEL MAR — The Del Mar Fairgrounds says further study of a rail realignment option on its property could halt discussions with the city about building needed affordable housing onsite.
Officials with the city of Del Mar and the Fairgrounds have spent months discussing an agreement to build around 60 affordable units on the property to help the city meet its Housing Element requirements. Del Mar must reach a finalized agreement with the Fairgrounds by April 2024 or risk building these units on other city parcels.
This past week, the city of Del Mar shared a set of guiding principles for the planned realignment of the Los Angeles—San Luis Obispo—San Diego (LOSSAN) rail corridor. Led by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the project seeks to move a small portion of the rail off the fragile Del Mar bluffs and onto one of several proposed alignments further inland.
One of the city’s principles states that the city supports the study of various potential realignments, including at the Fairgrounds, along Interstate 5 and the potential for no new alignment.
In a Nov. 9 letter to the city, Fairgrounds CEO Carlene Moore said the Fairgrounds is vehemently opposed to moving the rail onto the property and shared concerns about moving forward with affordable housing plans if this were to occur.
“As stewards of this historic property, we believe continuing to plan for the siting of an affordable housing development could be imprudent if SANDAG initiates further study of a Del Mar Fairgrounds alignment. We do not yet know, for example, whether any agreed-upon housing development plans might later be significantly impacted by potential construction and/or future train service,” Moore said in the letter.
SANDAG has studied alignment options on the Fairgrounds property to minimize impacts on residences. This included studies of a northern portal in the southern area of the Fairgrounds parking lot continuing into a cut-and-cover tunnel under the San Dieguito River, as well as another option for an elevated rail corridor over the Fairgrounds.
The agency found various cons to these alternatives, such as higher cost, potential adverse impacts on the lagoon and Fairgrounds, and noise and view impacts. Considering this assessment, Moore said the Fairgrounds has operated under the “reasonable assumption” that the route would not be pursued.
However, Sharon Humphreys, SANDAG Director of Engineering and Construction, said mitigation measures are also being studied, so this option is still being considered along with other alignments.
“We are looking at some refinements of those alternatives, and nothing is off the table at this point,” Humphreys said, adding that it will be several years before an alignment is chosen.
At their Monday meeting, Del Mar City Council members emphasized that their guiding principles do not state a preference for a particular alignment option but are meant to clearly outline the city’s priorities to the public and SANDAG.
The council also agreed to add another principle to their list, emphasizing the importance of protecting the interests of the Fairgrounds. The addition will be brought back to the council in December.
“The housing program that we are working on with the Fairgrounds is priority number one in the city,” said Councilmember Dwight Worden. “I still support studying an alignment through the Fairgrounds. I personally don’t think it’s feasible … but I think there’s enough traction in the community interested in this option that it’s incumbent for SANDAG to study it.”
At the 22nd DAA’s Tuesday meeting the following day, Moore said she was pleased with the city’s response and commitment to adding another guiding principle supporting their economic needs.
The city’s list of nine principles also drew criticism from some residents and Councilmember Dan Quirk, who was the sole dissenter in a 4-1 approval vote on Monday.
Along with supporting the exploration of various alignments, the principles oppose eminent domain and placing tunnel portals near residents’ homes.
They also call for a cost-benefit analysis of alignment alternatives, for SANDAG to engage the public wherever possible and be open and transparent regarding the project, and for the project to include the removal of seawalls and the creation of a trail wherever the tracks are removed.
“It’s important that we have these principles so that as we talk to SANDAG, we can say ‘this is what we’re looking for,’ so that as we talk to the public, we can say ‘this is what we are looking for’… so that we can speak with a singular voice rather than each having our own opinion on how to approach it,” Councilmember Dave Druker said.
While a handful of residents supported the principles, several continued to push back against the idea of a train tunnel under Del Mar and urged the city to take a strong stance against the project entirely.
“The problem I have with guiding principles, is that it predisposes that we’re gonna go along with all this business that SANDAG is proposing. That would be a terrible mistake, in my mind,” said resident Steven Crowe.
Quirk, who has been reprimanded for past statements about SANDAG and the realignment project, argued to his fellow council members that the city has power over what happens with the train and that the discontinuation of the rail needs to be seriously considered.
“I’m not gonna support the item. I’m just seeing it differently from you,” he said.
Other council members emphasized that while they can advocate for the city’s interests, that won’t stop SANDAG from moving forward with the project regardless. Councilmember Terry Gaasterland said working with SANDAG to ensure the optimal outcome for the city is the best thing to do.
“It’s not our choice that this train be gone,” said Gaasterland. “Engineering will happen, and if we don’t try to influence it, a plan will become the final plan … and that will be a tunnel under people’s homes and will have freight in it. We need to make sure that if it’s possible to avoid that, that we do.”
Mayor Tracy Martinez said the city is also discussing the future of the rail with leaders in San Clemente, where the tracks also run through, in response to residents.