Controversial plans by the Del Mar Fair Board to purchase 109 acres of wetlands next to the fairgrounds--property coveted by another government agency for a regional park--collapsed Friday when officials in Sacramento vetoed the acquisition.
The state's Public Works Board, made up of three state agency department heads, voted 2 to 1 to deny the fair board's request to buy the property. The panelists said they questioned the value of the property, wondered why the fair board wanted so much land and worried what effect the acquisition would have on plans for the 43-mile-long San Dieguito River Valley Regional Park.
'So It's Back to Square 1'
"So it's back to Square 1," said Andy Mauro, administrative officer for the 22nd Agricultural District, the state agency better known as the Del Mar Fair Board, which wants at least part of the land for parking.
The collapse of the deal was welcomed by officials of Del Mar who had filed a lawsuit challenging the purchase. The city argued that an environmental impact report should have been completed first on what effect the sale would have on the use of the wetlands property.
On Friday, officials in Sacramento said they, too, are concerned that the state's environmental protection laws might not have been followed by the fair board because it failed to look at the environmental consequences of the purchase.
The development Friday also opened the door for the river valley park joint powers authority--made up of the county of San Diego and the cities of San Diego, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Escondido and Poway--to resume their own attempts to buy the property for park use. Those officials had been hoping to buy the property themselves for the western terminus of the park that would wind east into the foothills of Julian.
Del Mar Mayor Brooke Eisenberg, who spoke against the fair board's purchase of the land at the hearing, conceded later that the victory was a surprise.
"That land is a vital part of the San Dieguito River Valley park," she said, "and we had to do everything we could to prevent it from being turned into parking lots."
The joint powers agency in charge of creating the river valley park does not have the funds to acquire the property, she said, "but I think that now we can work together. I think the fair board will be willing to sit down with us and work out an agreement in which we each get what we want."
On Western Side of I-5
The property is on the western side of Interstate 5, alongside the fairgrounds and the San Dieguito
River near where it empties into the Pacific. For years, the Del Mar Fair Board had used 12 acres of the property for overflow parking during the fair and horse-racing seasons. And, since 1982, the fair board has tried to purchase the 12 acres.
But the owner, a general partnership known as Del Mar 88, offered only a package deal in which the fair board would buy outright the 12 acres for $425,000 only if it agreed to an option to buy the additional 97 acres for $1.3 million. The 97-acre parcel is valued as sensitive wetlands, and the fair board could buy it in three years for just $10,000 more, according to the proposed sales agreement.
Sam Langberg, spokesman for the partnership, said his group insisted on those terms because a cash influx was needed to pay off the mortgage on the entire 109 acres.
"I don't want to sell the entire 109-acre parcel right now," he said. "And I ultimately would have bought back the 97 acres if the fair board didn't want it. But I wanted to raise some cash now and pay off the mortgage that's due on the property--about $1 million--and this (purchase option) was a way for me to raise the cash."
Fair board officials told the Public Works Board in Sacramento on Friday that the board wasn't sure what it would do with the balance of the property, and that it probably would be set aside in an ecological preserve so the fair board could receive so-called mitigation credit in the event it expanded the fairgrounds.
But critics of the fair board said they were wary that some of the 97-acre tract would eventually end up as parking lot, undercutting plans for the acreage to be a park showcase where the San Dieguito River Valley Park dissolves into the Pacific.
Fair Board officials indicated in Sacramento that they would consider pursuing condemnation of only the 12-acre parcel, which it still wants for parking.
Langberg said the 12 acres alone are valued at more than $1.7 million. He said he was willing to sell the smaller parcel to the fair board for the discounted price of $425,000 because of the $1.3-million cash injection the transaction would--because of the option-to-buy terms--give to the partnership so it could pay off the existing mortgage.
"The 12 acres will go back on the private market now, but for a lot more money," he said.