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City awards polo fields lease to Surf Club Sports

Kids in soccer jerseys filled the San Diego City Council chambers July 25 as the council approved a new 28-year lease for Surf Cup Sports on the polo field property. The vote was 8-1 with Council President Sherri Lightner voting against it.

The city will collect $240,000 annually in rent from Surf Cup in addition to a 10 percent assessment on events. Each year Surf Cup brings $139 million into the city with its events and books 85,000 hotel rooms, second only to Comic-Con.

Besides the economic benefit to the city, several soccer players and fans spoke to City Council about how important the fields are to kids’ growth on and off the field.

Surf players such as Luis Hernandez talked about how soccer had changed his life. The club’s outreach program for disadvantaged youth gave him hope and expanded his opportunities — he was scouted by coaches at a Surf tournament and is the first in his family to go to college – on a soccer scholarship –which will allow him to study economics and math.

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“I learned to be a more confident soccer player and less shy with my teammates,” said 8-year-old Ava Harrison. Her twin sister, Mia, said that playing soccer helps her stay healthy and teaches her “It’s OK not to always win.”

Surf Cup also received an endorsement from John Lynch, the former NFL player and Super Bowl champion ,whose daughters now play for Surf.

“I’m a believer in sports and what they do for our youth. When I go down to the polo fields what I see is nothing but positive stuff,” Lynch said.

No one was arguing with the value of soccer but neighbors have taken issue with what they believe is an intensification of use on the property, frustrations with the amount of traffic and noise brought on by Surf Cup’s use.

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According to city staff, the largest use of the property is the second weekend of the summer Surf Cup tournament, with 8,000 people and 2,200 cars. Soccer practice is held Monday through Thursday and the highest number of children is 330 a day, broken up into two 90-minute sessions of 150 people.

However, the rest of the time, 82 percent of the daytime, the field is empty.

Council President Lightner said she has received complaints about the property since she took office in 2008.

“Surf Cup’s passion and investment in our youth is undeniable. Youth sports are very important in San Diego and we need to make sure our children have a safe and convenient place to practice and play, but we are also responsible for insuring that it is in an appropriate location,” Lightner said. “Per the original grant deed it was clear to me that this land was intended to be open space…I believe neither polo’s use in the past nor Surf’s proposed future use is appropriate.

“If it was up to me the city would dedicate the polo fields as open space, something we did try to do in 2012, given how limited and precious a commodity open space is in San Diego.”

Over the years, a major point of contention has been whether the current use is allowed in the grant deed. Surf Cup is confident in its analysis that its proposed use is allowed and it has been used historically in that way since 1992.

The deed was clarified during the lease process to allow for 25 events a year rather than 25 event days. This has been a big concern for neighbors but Surf Cup has stated that it has never approached the level of 25 events a year — there were eight events in 2015.

Jim Madaffer, representing Surf Cup, said the number of events is governed by the health of the grass — it wouldn’t make sense to tax that resource. While many neighbors believe that the use has grown in recent years, he maintained that the size of the club and the use of the field has remained consistent over the years.

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Attorney Maria Severson, representing several of the surrounding homeowners, argued that per the grant deed the use was meant to be restricted to passive, non-commercial recreational uses not involving large assemblages of people.

“Kids doing somersaults, not a mega sports complex,” Severson said.

She said Surf Cup makes the area look like a “Walmart parking lot” with the number of cars and that the amount of noise, dust and traffic generated is excessive. Severson played a video to illustrate the sound of whistles and cheers that neighbors hear during soccer activity.

“Fairbanks Ranch Polo Club homeowners bought their homes with the understanding they would have quiet enjoyment of the property…Soccer is great, they support soccer. What they don’t support is a mega complex in their backyard,” Severson said. “They did not buy right next to Qualcomm and that’s what this is turned into with these types of assemblages of people.”

Leslie Gaunt, representing the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley, said they have concerns about the significant impacts of having this intensity of use next to a habitat that supports protected and endangered species. Gaunt said she believes that the city not completing an environmental review is a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

Gaunt also voiced concerns about the recent bulldozing on the property near the wetland habitat.

In 2005, the city’s code enforcement issued a notice of violation to the San Diego Polo Club for damage to the Coast to Crest Trail along the property. A site development permit was issued for restoration work but nothing has been done for the past 11 years. In 2016, code enforcement issued a new notice of violation for damage adjacent to the Coast to Crest trail between the road and hillside. Separate from its lease agreement, Surf Cup has pledged to complete both restoration projects at the cost of $1 million.

Madaffer said there is also a comprehensive traffic plan in place and Surf Cup plans to make improvements to the entry and exit points to help alleviate the complaints of “nightmare” traffic on Via de la Valle and El Camino Real. He also reiterated that there will be no “mega sports complex” and the use will not intensify.

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“I think it’s going to be a great partnership between the city and Surf for this lease,” said Councilmember Chris Cate. “Surf is part of the fabric of this city…I couldn’t imagine what the city of San Diego would be like without Surf.”


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