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With an 8-1 vote, the San Diego City Council awards a 28-year lease to Surf Cup Sports for use of the polo fields, saying polo will continue at the site. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
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Surf Cup gets 28-year lease for polo fields

REGION — Despite the threat of litigation, the San Diego City Council on July 25 granted a 28-year lease to Surf Cup Sports for the 120-acre site on the corner of Via de la Valle and El Camino Real best known as the polo fields.

President Sherri Lightner, in whose district the property is located, was the lone dissenter in the 8-1 vote.

“Surf Cup Sport’s passion for investing in our youth through sport opportunities is undeniable,” she said after describing herself as a longtime former soccer mom. “Youth sports are very important.

“We need to make sure children and youth have a safe and convenient place to practice and play, but we are also responsible for ensuring that it is an appropriate location,” Lightner added. “I can appreciate the frustration of the neighboring homeowners who are dealing with traffic and noise impacts on a regular basis. I do have concerns about this lease and whether this is the right location for Surf.

“Despite my strong support for youth soccer I cannot support this,” she said.

The property was deeded to the city of San Diego in 1982 as mitigation for open space lost when increased residential development was allowed in the river valley. According to the deed the site was to be used for noncommercial recreational use.

In 1986 the Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club, as it was called at the time, entered into a 26-year lease, which expired March 31, 2012.

Because the property hadn’t been out to bid for more than two decades, city officials felt doing so was appropriate.

Surf has been using the site for soccer practice, games and tournaments since 1992, when the San Diego Polo Club and Brenta Group LLC responded to a request for proposals issued last year.

Surf Cup was selected, as it was the only bid deemed “responsive,” according to Tracy Irvin, the city’s supervising property agent from the Real Estate Assets Department.

The organization will pay an annual rent of $240,000. The city will also receive 10 percent of all field, stall and arena rental revenue.

The base rent will be adjusted every five years, and the rent percentage every 10 years. By comparison, the city received $150,000 and $141,800 in lease income in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Irvin said the polo club, which had been leasing the site on a month-to-month basis for the past four years, was six months behind in its lease payments.

Independent of the lease agreement, Surf Cup agreed to resolve two outstanding environmental code violations and restore the adjacent Coast-to-Crest trail at an estimated cost of $8 million collectively.

A Polo Club representative said the organization was deferring improvements until a long-term lease was awarded.

The soccer club also plans to create a traffic mitigation plan.

According to a video presented by Surf Cup, the group’s three largest events attract 35,000 visitors who book 23,000 hotel nights, second only to Comic-Con.

Surf Cup estimates its overall economic impact to the region is $14 million.

The nonprofit has assumed all operational responsibilities since 2012 and spent $1.5 million in the past two years in renovations and maintenance.

There are plans to develop and reconfigure the fields to accommodate more players and spectators, add a new equestrian center, restore and build pedestrian trails and public use fields and upgrade the facility for youth polo activities.

Representing Surf Cup, Jim Madaffer said there will be no intensification of use and “we fully intend to keep polo at the property.”

The number of events is “governed by the health of the grass,” he said. “You can only have so many events on living grass at a time and we’re about at that number right now.”

Irvin said the number of cars generated by soccer has remained flat since the mid-1990s. Surf Cup enrollment has also remained fairly steady, with about 1,000 participants annually.

The lease, which expires in 2044, allows a maximum of 25 events per year, with a multi-day tournament considered one event.

The nearly one hour of public testimony included pleas to grant the lease from current and former players, some who are attending college on soccer scholarships, Surf Cup board members and former NFL player John Lynch, whose two daughters play for Surf.

“I’m a football guy but I’m a believer in sports and what they do for our youth,” the 2002 Super Bowl champ said. “What I see is nothing but positive stuff. … It teaches them tremendous lessons.”

“I’ve learned to be less shy,” youth player Ava Harrison said. “It teaches me about time management and responsibility.”

Those speaking in opposition of the lease included Maria Severson, an attorney representing the nearby Fairbanks Polo Club Homeowners Association.

“You have before you a chance to make right what’s been wrong on this property for a long time,” she said, noting that noncommercial recreational uses include activities such as picnics, walking and hiking that don’t generate large crowds or a significant number of cars.

“In other words, kids doing somersaults, not a mega-sports complex,” she said. “The proposed use violates the land use that’s allowed.

“The city is failing their community,” Severson added. “Ask yourself, for whom are you making this decision?”

She said nearby property owners bought their homes believing “the price they paid would be reflected in the quiet enjoyment of the property.”

“They will suffer damage if you do not uphold your end of the bargain when you accepted this land,” Severson said. “You cannot change the deal.

“Soccer’s great,” she added. “My kids play soccer. These homeowners’ children play soccer. They support soccer. What they don’t support is a mega-complex in their backyard. They did not buy right next to Qualcomm (Stadium) and that’s what this is turning into.

“The law allows if the city does something that it’s not supposed to do and takes property, takes the quiet enjoyment the property – devalues it, which is exactly what this is doing — the law provides for a remedy for these people,” Severson continued. “The city has a chance to prevent this harm. … Do what’s right.”

“The issue today isn’t soccer and if the lease will bring revenue to the city,” said attorney Leslie Gaunt, who is representing the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley. “It is if the lease complies with the law and right now it does not.”

Gaunt said an environmental review should be completed.

“There is a reasonable possibility the activities will have significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances,” she said.

But the majority of the council members saw the lease as a win-win situation.

“I think it’s going to be a good partnership between the city and Surf,” Chris Cate said. “Surf is definitely a fabric of this community. … I couldn’t imagine what San Diego would be like without Surf.”

Marti Emerald said she has concerns about ongoing compliance and city oversight.

“There are some people who live in the area who have seen the city not paying attention and they feel as though their quality of life is impacted, so let’s make sure going ahead that we keep an eye on what’s going on,” she said.

“I look to this deed area and see it as a gift not just to the people who live around there but to everybody in the city of San Diego and, most importantly, to our children,” Emerald added. “I know there are legal some risks.

“You can fight that fight but let’s take a look at the bigger picture, which is the well-being of children and giving children an opportunity to grow up safely in a healthful way to be more productive citizens and better rounded,” she said. “I think that’s the legacy of this piece of land.”

She suggested opponents “roll up their sleeves, go down and take a look. You might wind up coming back with a smile on your face recognizing that this is a wonderful use of this property for our kids, for our city and for our region.”

Severson said her clients are “evaluating their legal options and plan to take some action based” on the current “unlawful use” of the site.

Councilman Todd Gloria said he was a bit confused by the opposition.

“I think it’s kind of weird,” he said. “What’s the problem with soccer when polo’s OK?”

Sue Carr, a 28-year homeowner, said noise, dust, traffic and the overall disruption have “steadily increased over the last several years.”

“We didn’t have that with the polo playing,” she said. “Once the soccer got in there … all of a sudden we have a nightmare on our hands which we never had before.

“And I love the soccer kids — all of them,” she added. “Let’s find a place for them. … Is it right to take somebody else’s enjoyment of that land for these kids? What are we teaching them? If they want it more than I want it it’s OK to give it to them?”

Lightner said she has received complaints about the soccer since she was elected to council eight years ago.