Neighbors say use at Surf Cup Sports Park has intensified, city says its tenant is in compliance

Looking down on Surf Cup Sports Park from the residences above.
(Maggie Brown)

On most weekday afternoons, Surf Cup Sports Park is bustling with youth soccer action in pockets across the sprawling 80-acre property on Via De La Valle. Recently, Surf announced a partnership with NFL quarterback Drew Brees to help advance its mission to create positive experiences and opportunities for kids in sports.

While the club is still deciding what that partnership will mean, the announcement sparked some neighbors’ worries that it will only increase the use of the fields that they believe has intensified since Surf took over the property’s lease in 2016, bringing in more weekend events, traffic, noise and dirt.

Neighbor Sue Carr’s home on a hill in Polo Point has a bird’s-eye view of the former polo club property. Due to her proximity to the fields, she said her home is heavily impacted by the constant noise of whistles, amplified music so loud it rattles her windows, light from nighttime games and activities from portable lighting and the dust that kicks up into her home from cars traveling to and from the fields. On event days she said she hears the arrival of over 42 porta potties as early as 5:45 a.m. and then hears them being emptied by trucks with vacuum hoses as late as 9 or 10 p.m.

“Of the 365 days of the year, there is something disruptive happening 320 days of the year,” Carr said. “There seems to be no restrictions.”

Carr is part of a group of neighbors who have been pushed beyond their limits and have grown tired of their complaints being ignored by the city. The group includes immediate neighbors like the Fairbanks Polo Club Homeowners Association, those who are impacted in the communities of Whispering Palms and Morgan Run, and representatives from the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley, currently involved in their own legal dispute with Surf over its environmental impacts.

“There’s a grant deed on the property that the city refuses to follow and they have leased the land to an entity that is allowed to do whatever they want,” Carr said. “We don’t want to obliterate soccer, we just want them to obey the grant deed and curtail their activities significantly.”

The Fairbanks Polo Club HOA, who now holds the grant deed to the sports fields, sent a cease and desist letter to the city in February, alleging that the use had “escalated to the point of becoming a nuisance.” Surf’s “increased and expanded” use is unauthorized per the grant deed, the letter stated.

The city disagreed with the representation of the use in the cease and desist letter and asserted that they were in compliance.

According to the city, there are no restrictions on the number of events that can be held a year, no restriction on the hours of use or any limitations on lighting or amplified sound per the terms of Surf Cup Sports lease or the grant deed. In the city’s perception, Surf Cup Sports is adhering the lease agreement, according to Racquel Vasquez, senior public information officer.

The only issue the city has found with Surf Cup Sports’ usage of the property was in regard to signage.

“There have been several instances in which neighbors have complained about the presence of signs on the property,” Vasquez said. “The city investigated and instructed lessee to remove offending sign which appeared to be oversized. The lessee complied with removal of the sign.”

If Surf Cup Sports is in compliance with the lease provisions and regulations they are subject to, the city does not have a basis for enforcement, wrote Cybele Thompson, the city’s director of real estate assets told Carr in response to an email about noise and traffic concerns.

“In our many years of working with Surf Cup as the city’s lessee, they have always demonstrated an eagerness to go above and beyond the call of duty to reach out to the community and listen to community concerns,” Thompson wrote.

Brian Enge, the CEO of Surf Cup Sports, said Surf is mindful of the neighbors’ concerns but he does not agree with the allegation that use at the field has intensified—he said they are constrained by the number of fields on the property and their commitment to maintaining a world-class, premier youth sports facility in San Diego. He said while there is plenty of demand for use of the fields 365 days a year, more events would only destroy what they have built.

“The quality of the grass is the limiting factor,” Enge said, noting they cannot maintain that quality if it is over-used. “We want our facility to look incredible, we want to create the best of the best experiences and opportunities for kids.”

The grant deed

The city of San Diego obtained the polo club land in the early 1980s as part of a deal for development of the nearby community of Fairbanks Ranch. The city received a total of 616 acres, most of which was used for the construction of the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club. Over the years, a point of contention has been whether the current use of the open space land is allowed in the grant deed.

When Watt Industries granted the land for open space, the deed called for “passive, non-commercial recreational uses not involving large assemblages of people or automobiles.” Provisions of the deed allowed for events like sports tournaments and horse shows with consent from the deed holder.

In 2002 Ocean Industries, the legal arm of Watt Industries, amended the deed to limit events to only 25 days per calendar year. In the interest of allowing some latitude, Ocean again amended the deed in 2014, allowing for no more than 25 events per calendar year.

After the San Diego Polo Club’s original 26-year lease on the property expired, San Diego City Council awarded a new 28-year lease to Surf Cup Sports in 2016.

That year, Fairbanks Polo Club Homes threatened to sue Ocean Industries and the city as they believed the future use of the open space was in violation of the deed. As a result, Ocean Industries submitted a letter to “freeze” its permissions, rescinding the 25 events clause and reverting to the 25 days clause unless the city could provide assurances that they would defend or indemnify Ocean in the event that they were made party to litigation regarding the open space.

“We really felt that the dispute was a local dispute in which Watt had no interest…there was no real basis for Watt to choose sides,” said Christopher Chase, general counsel for Watt Companies. “The city declined to give us the assurances we sought. Nevertheless, we felt and still feel that this is an issue that needs to be solved at the local level.”

Chase said rather than choosing sides in the dispute, Watt assigned all of its rights under the original grant deed to the Fairbanks Polo Club HOA.

Christopher Gann, vice president of the HOA, said as the holder of the grant deed, they have never given consent for the large assemblages of people or the commercial activity that is currently going on at the fields.

“They have never talked to us at all,” Gann said of Surf Cup Sports. “They have totally avoided it.”

In theHOA’s perspective, the use has become “significantly concerning and burdensome.” Surf Cup has stated that it has never approached the level of 25 events a year, Enge said there will be 15 events in 2019. Gann contests that the way that Surf interprets events can be “misleading”—one event can be six days over two weekends.

Gann said the HOA went to its legal counsel who recommended not to go through a lawsuit but instead try to negotiate with the city.

“The city declined and the egregious behavior continued to increase so we issued the cease and desist in February,” Gann said.

The only recourse they have now as a HOA is to seek an injunction. The HOA of 55 homes held a vote in May to bill themselves a special assessment with the aim of generating the funds to file the injunction. The vote did not pass by a narrow margin.

“Those who were against it came to me and said they would’ve changed their vote had they seen what happened in July and August,” Gann said.

This summer he said the usage was “massive,” with the traffic so snarled that the bumper-to-bumper queuing of cars blocked the entrance to their community, homeowners could not get in or out, “How that happened under the auspices of local police I don’t know,” Gann said.

Per the Davis Stirling Act for residential developments, the HOA cannot go back for a special assessment vote in the same calendar year—the earliest they would be able to vote again would be in January. In the interim, they continue to share grievances within the group of neighbors who have aligned interests if not identical issues. The informal coalition that includes Carr, could ultimately come together to file the injunction but Gann said they have not yet determined next steps.

“The most egregious part of it all is there is no enforcement,” Gann said. “It’s a cozy situation, it’s very comfortable because no matter what Surf Cup does, there are no consequences.”

Surf Cup Sports Park

The park

Over 200,000 youth participants played on Surf Cup Sports’ fields in the last year with 490,000 total attendees and an estimated annual impact of $185 million. Per the terms of the lease, the city collects $240,000 annually in rent from Surf in addition to a 10 percent assessment on events.

Since taking over in 2016, Enge said Surf has made significant investments to improve and enhance the property.

“The key thing we are trying to do is be great stewards of this property,” Enge said.

This year they installed a new irrigation system and pump station allowing the Olivenhain Municipal Water District to provide recycled water for the fields, saving an estimated 100 million gallons of potable water per year.

“Our mission is to provide unmatched experiences and opportunities for kids, and for us that starts with the quality of our playing surface here,” Enge said. “The grass looks amazing”

With Surf Soccer, 900 kids are training two to four days during the week and on the weekends there are home games on six fields. The club is home to 11 national championships but they are proudest of the number of their players getting college soccer scholarships—Enge said on the girls’ side, 98 percent go to college on a soccer scholarship.

“We like to say this piece of grass creates more college scholarships than any piece of grass in the country,” said Enge of Surf’s opportunities as well as those provided by tournaments at the fields.

Players come from all over San Diego County to play for Surf, providing access to soccer for many who otherwise would not be able to afford it through a scholarship program. Surf’s portable trailers house a classroom where they have offered tutoring and SAT prep for its players. An example of just one of many success stories, Enge said one of their players on scholarship from Chula Vista took advantage of the prep classes and now has a full ride to University of Pennsylvania.

“What we can do with this grass is pretty amazing,” Enge said. “We think we can change lives out here. Our mission is always to help as many kids as we can.”

The San Diego Polo Club ceased operations on the site after its 2018 season. The back area that used to be barns and paddocks is now four fields that make up the new Surf Training Center that just opened in the fall. While there was always a pond there, it is more visible without the barn—Surf added a fountain to the pond, new plantings and seating areas. They are also building a barbecue area.

“It’s a community park, we want it to look nice,” Enge said. “This is just like any park, you can come here and use it.”

In May, new signage went up that announces the grass areas are available and open to the public on non-event days—Enge said people are often out on the fields with their dogs or exercising.

While the fields are meant to be accessible for all, some neighbors have reported that the gate is locked on some non-event days—most recently Carr found the gates locked on Oct. 6.

As part of the site beautification, Surf also added landscaped medians on the internal roads to help slow traffic. As much as possible, the dirt road on the property is watered to keep the dust down. “The dirt is packed down as hard as we can,” Enge said noting that ideally they would pave the interior roadway but it is a balancing act between the needs of the neighbors and those of the natural habitat—they cannot pave the roadway so close to the sensitive habitat of the San Dieguito River Park.

The traffic

Via De La Valle and El Camino Real can be particularly challenging thoroughfares on weekday afternoons.

“It’s like Friars Road, it’s full of cars,” said Rick Leyva, who lives directly across the street from the park.

His son attends Earl Warren Middle School in Solana Beach and he knows to allot time for a 45-minute trip on school days; for his child who attends Cathedral Catholic High School in Carmel Valley, he gives it an hour.

Leyva has seen his fair share of traffic jams and numerous accidents, one this summer ignited a small brush fire on the hill. Leyva said he and his wife have emailed the city for over two years about their safety concerns and no one ever responds, “We are being ignored,” Leyva said. “I’m a coach myself, it’s not about the kids, this is about profits. No one is opposed to (soccer) but no one is giving these guys limits.”

Some residents who live beyond the fields in Rancho Santa Fe fear that there are too many cars on the two-lane roads and that it could be dangerous in the event of a fire evacuation.

Beth Nelson, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and member of the San Dieguito Community Planning Group, has raised her concerns about Surf to her planning group, the Rancho Santa Fe Association and the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board.

“I would say we all moved here knowing the racetrack and horsepark were there and expected certain things like traffic at certain times of year. But the issue with the polo fields is that it was deeded to the city basically for open space … and the original grant deed does not allow for this commercial use,” Nelson said. “They are overstepping what is supposed to be happening on this land at the expense of all the surrounding rural community.”

Enge said safety is a top priority for the club. They are no longer allowed to use the entrance on El Camino Real which is the property of the 22nd Agricultural District so all traffic is directed to the entrance further down Via De La Valle.

Surf Sports worked to make the entrance safer by making it wider and putting in dedicated turn lanes. They also contract with a local traffic control company to provide electronic signage for each event. This summer, Surf Cup also took it upon themselves to work with the San Diego Police Department to place a radar speed sign in front of the property.

On Aug. 17, someone crashed into it and knocked it over.

While Surf Cup is committed to helping the entire neighborhood get speeds under control, Enge said the park is not the only contributing factor to traffic on Via De La Valle, which is a major artery connecting to Interstate 5. Development has increased in the surrounding areas which puts more cars on the road and Enge said if a beautiful beach day occurs when there’s an event at Surf Sports Park and a great concert at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, it can create the perfect storm. That said, he said they knows they have a responsibility to manage their events and they “spend every waking moment” thinking about how to improve the traffic flow.

“It still remains a concern for us and our staff is working on trying to make it better,” Enge said, noting they have even lobbied the city to install a traffic signal that Surf has offered to pay for. “These are our kids coming and going here every day and we feel very responsible for them.”

The use

The largest use of the property is the second weekend of the summer Surf Cup tournament, the number of attendees varies but past estimates have been about 8,000 people and 2,200 cars. While practices are held throughout the week and games on weekend, Surf estimates that about 82 percent of the daytime, the field is empty.

“(Event use) is the heaviest in the summer because that’s when kids are off school,” Enge said. Remaining events on the calendar posted on the website include the USA Ultimate Frisbee event on Oct. 24, the Surf College Cup on Thanksgiving weekend and the 3D Lacrosse tournament in the first week of December.

Neighbors have complained that the website calendar is not always up to date or accurate—one neighbor said he was disappointed to see the fields being used for a bocce and beer festival on Sept. 29. The event was put on by the Del Mar-Solana Beach Rotary Club and raised funds for nonprofit organizations like Just in Time for Foster Youth.

Surf Cup has maintained that the number and size of events has remained consistent for over 20 years. At the time Surf Cup pursued its lease in 2016, it had stated that there were eight events in 2015.

“Our goal is to be good neighbors,” Enge said, noting that they have turned down events that they feel might negatively impact neighbors.

He said Surf knows the names of many of their detractors, in some cases he has visited their homes and worked to connect and discussed potential solutions to their problems, “anything that’s reasonable, we’ll listen to,” Enge said.

Carr said she believes that Enge is “very nice and polite and says all the right things,” but what she wants he cannot promise and that is to reduce activity at the fields.

“Their goal is to get more, our goal is to get less,” Carr said, who has reached out for help to Councilmember Barbara Bry and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, both of whom are running for mayor in 2020.

Like Carr, Gann’s major “beef” is with the city.

“The city doesn’t even respect its own agreements. They have a signed agreement and they aren’t following it. They continue to say that Surf Cup is in compliance,” Gann said. “It’s very low on the city’s priority list, but it continues to be a legal issue. From a legal perspective, what they’re doing is outright wrong.”