DEL MAR — The Del Mar Fairgrounds, the public agency that owns and operates the Del Mar Horsepark, announced Jan. 12 it’s seeking public input to help chart the cash-strapped equestrian facility’s future.
That future could entail establishing some kind of cost-sharing public-private partnership.
The Fairgrounds announced last month it would “pause” Horsepark activities, including boarding and horse shows, “to further evaluate the necessary investment required to meet water quality requirements.” The agency gave three months’ notice to 38 boarders, saying they’d need to find new homes for their animals.
The move took many, including equestrian professionals and enthusiasts, by surprise.
“This is the first time that we’ve been able to have a conversation publicly about it,” Board President Richard Valdez told some 70 listeners at the Jan. 12 board meeting. “Conversations that we have had around this topic have been in closed session,” due to requirements to “maintain the attorney client privilege” for “any issue that might have a potential for litigation.”
The Horsepark, which can accommodate hundreds of horses, must meet the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board’s requirements to prevent animal waste runoff. The Fairgrounds has made some, though not all, related facility and infrastructure improvements.
All necessary capital improvements could cost as much as $8 million — money the Fairgrounds doesn’t have, Valdez said. COVID-related restrictions on public events, on top of declining horse racing and existing debt, have put the Fairgrounds in financial straits.
Several years ago, the San Diego Coastkeeper and the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, environmental organizations, sued the Fairgrounds concerning water quality. The suit resulted in the Fairgrounds upgrading its thoroughbred racetrack’s storm water treatment capacity — to the tune of $15 million, plus $150,000 in settlement costs.
A recent unofficial water test, paid for independently by concerned citizens, didn’t find pollutant emissions from the Horsepark.
However, “testing limits are very, very low, and equestrian facilities are normally very challenged to meet most or all of those,” said Ian Adam, an engineering consultant. Testing for regulatory compliance would include measuring concentrations of phosphorous, nitrogen, copper, zinc and other chemicals at all outfalls within prescribed windows of time.
“In the overall scheme of things, runoff from Horsepark is a minor contributor to the regional problem,” said board member Don Mosier.
“Having been sued before, we are aware of the costs and the exposure,” Valdez said. “Even one horse on-site would have triggered the [legal] exposure that we were trying to avoid. Therefore, there really was no other choice but to provide notice for everyone and to cease all operations and equestrian presence at the facility” until “we can determine next steps.”
Though he assured listeners, “this board has not made a decision to permanently close Horsespark” or “turn [it] into any other use.”
Next steps could include determining “whether there is any appetite by the community to assist us with that obligation [the cost of environmental compliance], and how,” Valdez said.
Sometimes the Horsepark and horse shows generate net income, other times losses, according to limited financial data the Fairgrounds furnished The Coast News.
Numerous public speakers at the Jan. 12 meeting voiced support for restoring equestrian activities. Several said they consider themselves environmentally conscious, and also that community members would likely contribute resources toward bringing the Horsepark into environmental compliance.
“All of us are really focused on being environmental custodians,” said Shannon Mendez of Manolo Polo School.
The Fairgrounds should “look to working on a public-private partnership,” including “matching funds,” Nani Luebke said. “People would step up and be very happy to make that happen.”
Laura Demarco suggested leasing the Horsepark for a long term to a private-sector equestrian operator, who could front the necessary capital and then recoup the cost over a decade or more.
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