Rancho Santa Fe-area Polo Club lease expires in March

By Joe Tash

As the city of San Diego moves forward with a plan to take bids for a long-term lease on an 80-acre parcel of land next to the San Dieguito River, environmentalists, polo players, youth soccer supporters and neighbors are watching closely.

Over the next few months, the city will issue a request for proposals for a lease on the property at Via De La Valle and El Camino Real, which has been the home of the San Diego Polo Club since 1986. The club’s original 26-year lease is set to expire in March.

“We’re going through the process of seeking renters for that property. And we’re going to evaluate all the bids that come in from the standpoint of what’s best for the city in terms of economically, (and) the way it would fit into the community. We are looking to have a tenant in there that uses that facility in some way related to recreation,” said Alex Roth, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders.

Roth declined to comment further on the specific requirements that will be included in the request for proposals, which he said is still being drafted. But he promised an open process and invited anyone with suggestions or concerns about the request for proposals, or the lease, to send a letter to the city.

“There is going to be lots and lots of opportunity for public input on this,” Roth said.

The city obtained the 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 construction of the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club, which is also leased by the city to the country club.

The remaining 80 acres were leased to the San Diego Polo Club, which was launched by 30 founding members, who invested about $2 million in the fields, barns and other facilities on the site, said current club president Ron Bonaguidi.

Currently, the club pays the city $9,842 per month for the property, according to Roth. Over the life of the lease, rental payments have totaled more than $3 million, along with $650,000 in property taxes, said Bonaguidi.

Overlooking the expansive green lawns of the polo fields is a deck and clubhouse and offices housed in modular buildings. On a recent morning, a flock of Canada geese occupied the fields where horses and riders can be found during the summer polo season. In the center of the property are rows of horse barns and stalls, vacant for the winter, and at the east end of the property are soccer fields subleased to a local youth soccer club.

The polo club, which has some 50 to 100 active members, subleases the property to bring in revenue to support and maintain the property. Among the annual activities are the Surf Cup soccer tournament, lacrosse tournaments, and corporate and charitable events.

The polo club is a “not-for-profit” corporation, said Bonaguidi, which puts all of its revenue back into the fields.

Bonaguidi said polo club officials had made a proposal to increase the club’s rent in exchange for a lease extension before the city decided to open up bidding for the property. He blamed outside pressure from a local newspaper and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority (JPA) for convincing city officials to go out to bid.

“They’re doing it because of external issues,” Bonaguidi said.

He noted that the club has been a good tenant for more than 25 years, and the city could have negotiated a lease extension directly with the club, that would have been fair to both parties.

“We don’t want a sweetheart deal,” he said. But if it doesn’t win a new lease, “the club will probably become extinct.”

Roth, the mayor’s spokesman, confirmed that the city did not legally have to go out to bid. “We chose to do so because we want to make certain we perform our due diligence and explore all options. The community expects nothing less,” Roth wrote in an email.

The fortunes of the popular Surf Cup soccer tournament are also tied to an extension of the polo club lease, said Mike Connerly, tournament president.

The youth tournament, now in its 21st year, is held each summer and fall at the polo fields, and draws about 7,500 players, Connerly said. “If we’re not able to continue here, we’re in the same situation Ron’s in, we will be done.”

Also watching the situation closely are officials with the river park JPA, and the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley, an environmental group.

The JPA wants to make sure that proper environmental review is conducted for any potential future uses of the property, said agency executive director Dick Bobertz. Also, the polo club is in the process of restoring a section of trail along the river, and the JPA wants the work completed even if the lease changes hands.

Ideally, Bobertz said, the JPA would like to see “low-key, passive recreational uses” on the property. “It would make a great public park,” he said.

The Friends group is most concerned about intensification of uses at the fields, said president Maggie Brown.

“We feel the club has been a good steward. We certainly could have done a lot worse over the last 25 years. It’s sort of the devil you know versus the devil you don’t know. What we want is for it to be returned to its natural, unsullied state, but nobody’s going to do that. The city of San Diego is desperate for money. We are worried about what the city is going to put there instead of the polo club that’s going to be an intensification of uses,” Brown said.

Bonaguidi said the club’s continued presence provides public benefits, from access to walkers and joggers to a place where appropriate community events can be held. The club offers an initial free polo lesson to any member of the public he said, and he disputed that polo is strictly a game for the wealthy.

In simple terms, the game consists of two teams of four horses and riders, who use wooden mallets to score by hitting a ball between goal posts. The game requires both athleticism and equestrian skills, said Bonaguidi.

“There are one-horse polo players and the Sultan of Brunei,” he said. “The elitists get all of the ink. They’re only 1 percent of the polo population but they skew the perception.”