Solana Beach comes to terms with concert venue at Del Mar Fairgrounds

The $13 million transformation of the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ satellite betting center is back on track, just in time for the project’s hearing before the California Coastal Commission.

Fairgrounds officials announced Friday, Sept. 29 that they have resolved their dispute with the City of Solana Beach over the project’s environmental and traffic impacts. The terms of their agreement, however, are not yet being made public.

The 22nd District Agricultural District (DAA), which runs the state-owned fairgrounds, put the finishing touches this spring on its plan to renovate Surfside Race Place by converting half of the facility into a 1,869-seat concert venue and a 7,000-square-foot area for beer tasting and exhibits on the history of horse racing, craft beer and the county fair. The off-track wagering center will continue to operate in the other half.

The ailing facility has for years paled in comparison to its heyday 20 years ago, with attendance typically one-tenth (or less) of its 5,500 capacity. Revenues have followed suit. Adding the concert venue and exhibition hall would generate between $1.2 million to $2 million in profits each year, officials say. Construction is set to begin in December in hopes of opening the new complex in the fall of 2018.

“With the downturn in off-track wagering, we’re very excited about transforming this facility into a concert venue that will become a community asset enjoyed by our neighbors and the general public,” Tim Fennell, the fairgrounds’ CEO and general manager, said in the Sept. 29 press release. “It will generate jobs and we hope new horse racing customers as well.”

Officials with the fairgrounds and Solana Beach say they are not revealing the terms of their agreement until both parties have signed a Memorandum of Understanding laying out those conditions. That is expected by the end of this week.

One clue is that the press release scales back the number of concerts Surfside will hold. It references approximately 60 annual concerts after fairgrounds officials had consistently said it could hold as many as 90 concerts per year.

The dispute stemmed from the DAA’s decision not to put the project into environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which can take a year or more. The DAA had said the project is exempt from CEQA on the grounds that its expected traffic increase and other impacts will fall within thresholds laid out in its original permit.

Solana Beach and Del Mar immediately objected to the DAA’s position, countering that traffic conditions and surrounding communities have changed dramatically in the decades since Surfside opened in 1991.

Despite those objections, the fairgrounds’ board of directors approved the plan in May. Solana Beach filed suit a month later in San Diego Superior Court seeking to force the project into CEQA review. Fairgrounds and Solana Beach officials negotiated privately through the summer. That culminated on Wednesday, Sept. 27, when the Solana Beach City Council met in closed session and agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding with the DAA. The following day, the city of Solana Beach informed the California Coastal Commission that the city no longer opposes the project.

The California Coastal Commission is set to consider Surfside’s Coastal Development Permit at its Oct. 14 meeting. The staff report recommends approval with several conditions, the most significant of which require the DAA to gather data on parking and attendance for every Surfside event over the next five years, after which the Coastal Commission will evaluate the data before renewing Surfside’s permit.