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Battle Shapes Up Over Fairground Expansion : Environment: The state-owned facility's growing popularity is at odds with powerful factions that want to preserve what's left of the area for a regional park.


At the Del Mar Fairgrounds, success has caused headaches.

The state-owned facility attracts 3 million people a year to the small seaside city. For the 5,200 permanent residents of Del Mar, it's like having an elephant sit in your lap.

The fairgrounds' increasing draw clashes with the plans of powerful environmental interests who want to preserve the San Dieguito River Valley, where the fairgrounds is situated.

With fairgrounds officials planning more than $115 million in construction--including the second largest public-works project in the county's history--the battle has been joined.

Environmentalists concede that the state-owned fairgrounds has a mandate to become self-supporting and to serve the growing population of San Diego County, but they are arming to fight any effort to expand the profit-oriented operation into the sensitive coastal wetlands that surround it.

Roughly a million fair-goers visit the 345-acre spread each June through July 4. The Del Mar Race Track hosts an additional million or so for thoroughbred races from mid-July into September. And another million people show up for the kaleidoscope of activities--from grand prix auto races to rabbit shows--that go on every day of the year in and around the assortment of homely, barn-like buildings that carpet the flood plain at the mouth of the San Dieguito River.

John Gillies, Del Mar city councilman, went so far as to suggest a few years back that the fairgrounds should move, perhaps to El Cajon or some other inland location, taking its crowds and traffic with it.

Fair officials say that's, well, unfair.

"Local officials around here look at us like we were out to rape and pillage, but we don't. We try to be good neighbors. We try to get into the game," said Roger Vitaich, general manager of the sprawling state facility.

"The game" that Vitaich and the Del Mar Fair Board are watching from the sidelines is the creation of a massive open-space park in the San Dieguito River Valley, stretching from the ocean at Del Mar to the mountains near Julian. The players include almost every environmental group and local politician in San Diego and North County.

"They are in the game," Solana Beach Councilwoman Margaret Schlesinger counters. "They (the nine governor-appointed Fair Board directors) are major players, major property owners in the proposed park area.

"But there is a basic philosophical conflict between an organization that is basically a commercial enterprise interested in expanding, and an effort to create a major passive park in the same place."

Schlesinger, a member of the regional park joint powers authority board that the Fair Board aspires to join, concedes that the Fair Board and Vitaich have a job to do in making the Del Mar Fairgrounds a moneymaker and that they are doing it very successfully. A bit too successfully for the park officials and surrounding residents.

"It's a serious conflict when they want to build and grow to bring in more money, and we want to preserve the sensitive habitat and create a passive park in the same place," she said.

Vitaich acknowledges that fair officials "have tried to buy a little cooperation" from the regional park agency's hierarchy, purchasing a 22-acre tract between the state property and the ocean that has been dedicated as open space and public beach, and trying to buy another 109-acre tract to be turned over to the park. The Fair Board also contributes about $70,000 a year toward regional parkland acquisition, he said.

"The money didn't get us a seat on the governing body," Vitaich said. "It got us nothing."

What Vitaich and Fair Board members want is a spot on the board of influential elected officials from the county and cities near the San Dieguito River Valley. Although not powerful enough to stop expansion plans on the fairgrounds, the board's members are also members of elective bodies that are--such as city councils, county boards and regional planning groups.

The regional park leaders have expressed concern over the Fair Board's building plans, land acquisitions in the river valley and stated intent to accommodate larger and larger crowds at the fairgrounds, Schlesinger said.

Andy Mauro, fairgrounds administrative officer, ticks off the major construction projects planned for the fairgrounds in the next few years:

* Horse show arena. An open ring where the annual Del Mar Horse Show can be held while the audience watches in shaded comfort instead of on sun-baked bleachers. This is a $6.5-million project now under construction and scheduled for completion in January, in plenty of time for the 1992 World Cup jumping competition. Fair Board members recently won a bid to host that prestigious event, an international competition and warm-up for the '92 Olympics. Capacity in the arena would increase from 2,200 to 3,800 spectators.

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