DEL MAR — The Del Mar Fairgrounds is a few steps away from having a certified environmental impact report for expansion and improvement plans that have been in the works for nearly 20 years.
At the Sept. 12 meeting the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees the state-owned facility, approved a 2008 master plan and, for the second time, certified the accompanying environmental document that at this point seems symbolic.
Director David Watson said he wondered why the board was taking action since the master plan is “technically out of date.” However, he acknowledged it is valuable to have a finalized EIR for the property.
“We’ve never had such a document before,” he said, adding that it gives the 22nd DAA “flexibility to do things … without having to jump through all these hoops again.”
“If we were ever to update or amend our master plan, this EIR would be our baseline,” said Watson, a land-use attorney. “We wouldn’t have to start from scratch. We would just have to analyze the differences between an amendment and what we have today.”
The 22nd DAA began soliciting public input in 2000 to update and expand the fairgrounds, which hosts more than 300 events annually. Plans went through several iterations before the board settled on a scaled-back version that eliminated a controversial 330-room hotel.
It was considered the environmentally superior alternative because it had fewer impacts.
Near-term projects included replacing older exhibit halls with a building featuring lighted rooftop sports fields, realigning the Solana Gate entrance and paving the east parking lot.
Plans also called for a 60,000-square-foot health club, a three-story administrative office and a 48-foot-tall, 192-square-foot, two-sided electronic sign along Interstate 5 that was eventually eliminated as well.
Long-term projects include a permanent seasonal train platform, a multilevel parking structure that could accommodate about 1,300 vehicles and rebuilding stables and living quarters.
After 90 minutes of public testimony at an April 2011 meeting, during which two-thirds of the speakers requested a delay in action, directors voted unanimously to certify the final EIR.
“It was a brutal day,” said current President Russ Penniman, the only sitting director who was on the nine-member panel at the time.
But the project stalled, partly because funding hadn’t been identified. Meanwhile, the adjacent cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach, the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority and the Sierra Club filed lawsuits.
The cities and JPA, which combined to sue the fairgrounds, reached a settlement in 2012 that included returning an overflow parking lot to the south of the facility back to wetlands.
Later that year a San Diego Superior Court judge dismissed all but three of the nearly 20 issues cited in the Sierra Club lawsuit.
Ronald Prager ruled the 22nd DAA failed to adequately analyze traffic impacts and mitigation, identify an adequate water supply for the project in the short term and describe existing greenhouse gas emissions from fairgrounds operations.
A revised EIR limited to those concerns was released for public comment earlier this year. None of the 11 letters received were from the Sierra Club. Solana Beach submitted comments, but the 22nd DAA determined they were not relative to the three areas.
Bill Chopyk, the city’s community development director, said the Solana Beach comments were based on the introduction of new activities that will have additional impacts on traffic, greenhouse gas emissions and water supply, such as the three-day KAABOO Del Mar music festival and a proposal to turn part of Surfside Race Place into a concert venue.
Chopyk said traffic counts in the EIR are outdated and the district engaged in “improper piecemeal environmental review” by failing to include the Surfside project for analysis.
Watson said the action being taken was to correct the impacts in the original EIR subject to the court order.
“It is not intended to identify and analyze anything that has happened since then,” Watson said. “The only purpose of this revision is to respond to the court’s order and we have done that. I don’t think there’s any problems with this document because it’s done what it’s supposed to do.”
To complete the certification process, a document will be filed explaining the district’s responses to the court.
“Theoretically there’s an option to challenge that but given the lack of comments from the Sierra Club and their attorney we don’t expect that,” Hayley Peterson, deputy attorney general, said.
Once the court signs an order discharging the writ, the litigation will be resolved, she added.
According to the settlement with the cities, the 22nd DAA could reintroduce a hotel to the plans next year but Penniman said that’s not likely.
“What was maybe financially viable in 2008 … is not financially viable today,” he said. “So I think the practical probability of this body moving in that direction is slim to none.”
Penniman also said other than a few ongoing improvements there are no plans or funds to move forward with any projects in the master plan.
“I think we ended up in the right place,” he added. “It’s good to finally get it to this point. It’s nice to finally wrap this up after multiple years.”
A draft EIR released in 2009 received 127 letters with 2,500 comments during the extended four-month public review period.