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Orange County open to Schwarzenegger's proposal to sell fairgrounds

The fair board passes a resolution in support of selling -- possibly to a nonprofit or the county -- but specifies that the land use must remain unchanged.

July 16, 2009|Tony Barboza

Two months after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed liquidating state properties -- including the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, San Quentin State Prison and three state-owned fairgrounds -- to raise cash to help balance the state budget, one panel is taking the governor up on his idea: The Orange County Fair Board on Wednesday approved a resolution supporting the sale of the property.

The resolution specifies that the land must remain a fairgrounds and event center.

"We felt that if the state is intent on putting that land up for sale . . . then we want to identify" a way to protect the fair, said board Chairwoman Julie Vandermost. "We don't want to see any kind of situation where the fair might not survive. . . . That would be unacceptable."

The property could be sold to a nonprofit, the county or a private company that would adhere to the land-use designation. Some fair board members said they were looking at forming their own nonprofit to buy the property, and there have also been informal discussions by county officials.

The board called the special meeting as the fair began the second week of its annual run because members wanted to make their position public before state leaders made a decision on the budget. The desire to sell the property came as a surprise to other agencies, which have criticized Schwarzenegger's proposal because it would sacrifice heavily used public assets to pay off short-term debt.

The president of Ventura County's fair board, for instance, has said the directors there would never sell that land.

Any sale of the fairgrounds in Ventura, Orange and San Diego counties faces a slew of legal complications, including coastal regulations, zoning laws, even outcry from vendors that use the grounds for consumer expos and swap meets.

The governor has estimated the value of the 190-acre Orange County property at between $96 million and $180 million. But because the city of Costa Mesa -- which controls zoning for the land because the fairgrounds is within its city limits -- would oppose any land-use change to allow for residential development, the actual price would probably be significantly lower.

Vandermost, who was appointed by Schwarzenegger, said the property would be appraised, adding that because of the zoning issue, "we think that the appraisal will come about to an amount that we can finance" through bond money.

Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, who said he originally interpreted the governor's idea as nothing more than a threat, now says he would be open to a sale of the property to a nonprofit, as long as it kept the fair running.

"The main concern that I have is that it remains . . . as a fairgrounds and events center," he said. "I don't think the public wants the state to threaten to take it every year there's a financial problem."

Other fairgrounds around the state, such as the Los Angeles County Fair at the Pomona Fairplex, are operated on public land but are run by nonprofits.

Although the decision on whom to sell the property to, and for what price, ultimately rests with the governor and must be approved by the Legislature, Orange County fair officials said they wanted to show that they support selling the land.

"We just think that the governor had a pretty good idea," said David Ellis, a board member appointed by Schwarzenegger. "Everyone else told us it was a bad idea. We just disagree."

Some government officials in Orange County have already started looking at buying the fairgrounds and having a nonprofit operate it.

"It depends on the price," Supervisor Bill Campbell said, estimating the county could probably afford to pay no more than $10 million to $20 million.

Campbell said he has asked the county parks director to look at ways to purchase the fairgrounds, possibly by asking cities served by the Harbor Patrol to take over that budget, which could free up $5 million to $6 million in park funds to buy the property.

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.

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