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Costa Mesa residents and officials press to halt auction of O.C. Fairgrounds

At a hearing Monday, locals expressed fears that if sold, the property could be developed for residential or commercial use. The state has given bidders until Jan. 8 to submit offers for the 150-acre site.

November 10, 2009|Tony Barboza

Forget the swap meets, fried food and farm animals. For now the biggest to-do at the Orange County Fairgrounds is the controversy over who will buy the property from the state and for what purpose.

In an attempt to raise funds, the state of California last month put the 150-acre Costa Mesa site up for auction to the highest bidder.

But as local governments and a nonprofit foundation scramble to ready plans to purchase the property and preserve it as a fairgrounds, locals have pleaded with lawmakers to put the brakes on the auction, at least until they have more answers.

At a public hearing Monday, dozens of Costa Mesa residents, fairgrounds vendors and horse owners from the site's equestrian center -- some wearing stickers that said "Derail the Sale" -- voiced fears that if sold, the property could be developed for residential or commercial use.

"This is where I take my kids to tell them: Food doesn't come from the supermarket. There's your bacon, it's got four feet," said Joy Williams of Costa Mesa, who opposes the fair leaving state hands. "This has got to stop."

Assemblymen Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana) and Van Tran (R-Garden Grove) convened the hearing because of concerns about fairness and transparency.

The state has given bidders until Jan. 8 to submit offers and is trying to maximize profit. The governor's office has estimated the property's value at between $96 million and $180 million, but officials with the state Department of General Services acknowledged during Monday's hearing that they have not appraised it.

The Costa Mesa City Council opposes the property being used as anything other than a fair and event center, and its effort to bolster the site's zoning to prevent development has erupted into a war of words with the state.

The General Services agency last month sent a missive warning the city to refrain from taking any action that would lower the property's sale value. "The state will consider whatever options may be available to preserve the fairgrounds value," the letter said.

"We took it as a threat of legal action," Costa Mesa City Manager Allan Roeder said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the City Council voted last week to place an initiative on the June ballot that would require any land-use changes at the fairgrounds to be approved by voters.

"To sell the fairgrounds and develop it . . . would be a great detriment to the city of Costa Mesa," Councilwoman Katrina Foley said Monday.

With the auction looming, there are at least three prospective buyers: the city of Costa Mesa, Orange County and a nonprofit foundation formed last month made up of six members of the governor-appointed fair board.

"I think the fair can be so much more successful as a private enterprise," said Kristina Dodge, chairwoman of both the fair board and foundation and one of the few voices at the hearing in favor of selling the property.

Critics, including several activist groups that have formed to oppose the sale, have expressed doubts about the fair board's lobbying activity and the consequences of selling the site to a nonprofit that would operate without public scrutiny.

"My biggest concern if this sale to their foundation goes through is that there'll be no public accountability," said Brigid McMahon, a horse enthusiast from Irvine who is part of the new group Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society. "I just can't believe the state would let this go through."

The foundation's board will be made up of six members from the existing fair board, two members from Costa Mesa, two members from the county and one public member elected by the board. In a letter to the city last month asking for appointees, Dodge wrote that appointees must not be elected officials and must sign confidentiality and internal control agreements.

In response, Mayor Allan Mansoor wrote that "the city of Costa Mesa has an obligation to the public to insure that our participation in the foundation is completely transparent and fully compliant with applicable state and federal law . . . we must act in an informed, open fashion."

In an interview, Dodge defended the foundation's quest for privacy.

"It's not a matter of hiding anything or not being transparent; it's about not having those shackles on you that prevent you from being nimble as a business entity," she said. "We're just keeping it out of the public arena by not having them be public officials."

Steve Beazley, the fair's chief executive, acknowledged hiring former state Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman to lobby state officials after the governor proposed the sale.

"We did get some insight," Beazley said. He said he did not know how much Ackerman was paid for the consulting work.

The big question that remains unanswered is how any of the potential bidders -- nonprofit or municipal -- would raise the money to purchase the property.

While Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector Chriss Street on Monday outlined possible funding scenarios, Dodge was coy.

"We are speaking with several partners," she said in an interview. "They've asked to be kept confidential."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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