Endangered least terns were turned out of their designated nesting area on the Del Mar Fairgrounds last weekend to make way for more parking when the annual county fair opens Friday.
The eviction, “begun on late Friday afternoon, after offices were closed and there could be no phone communication,” according to Del Mar Mayor Jan McMillan, caught city officials off-guard when a barrage of calls from irate constituents came in.
“All of us on the (City) Council were barraged with calls from our constituents asking what was going on, and we simply could not give them answers,” McMillan said in a curt letter to Fair Board directors. “On Monday we discovered a reference to this project on the agenda of today’s (Tuesday’s) board meeting, but we do not consider this timely and courteous notice.”
Jan Anton, Fair Board president, tried to smooth ruffled feathers at the Tuesday board session, but Del Mar Councilwoman Gay Hugo was having none of it.
She said Del Mar plans to pursue the issue and the manner in which it was handled.
Hugo, a member of a city-fairgrounds liaison group formed to ease the often-stormy relations between the two agencies, said, “I don’t know how this thing fell between the cracks.”
Despite opposition from the city of Del Mar, the Fair Board reached agreement Tuesday with the state Department of Fish and Game to provide another five-acre nesting site in exchange for bulldozing the wetlands for additional parking. The new nesting area is near the San Dieguito River mouth.
The agreement, signed after work began on the weekend, calls for fencing the site, removing vegetation if necessary and providing at least 20 least tern decoys to make the displaced birds feel at home.
Both the fairgrounds and the San Dieguito Lagoon are within the Del Mar city limits.
Don Coordt, president of the San Dieguito Lagoon Committee, said the new site “is very inappropriate.” It lies on sandy ground between the Santa Fe railroad tracks and the Old Highway 101 bridges near the beach and, “until the last four years of drought, was under water most of the time.”
Both Coordt and Hugo criticized removing the former nesting site in the middle of the least tern nesting season, which runs from April through August.
Anton said that Del Mar critics “are talking to the wrong people when they complain to us.”
State fish and game officials approved the site and are in charge of it, Anton said, “although they will probably come to us when they find out that it will cost them money.”
In 1984, in order to build a tunnel from the Del Mar Racetrack grandstand to the infield, the Fair Board was required by the state Coastal Commission to set aside a least tern nesting area on the fairgrounds. The site chosen was a 4.5-acre point of land next to the San Dieguito River in an overflow parking lot.
“We have been trying to find another place for it for five years,” Anton said. “We need the parking spaces.”
Anton said a berm separating the nesting site from the rest of the parking lot had been bulldozed over the weekend and about four acres of the site had been prepared for parking by work crews. The area can hold 600 cars, and with twice-a-day visitor turnover, will provide an additional 1,200 parking spaces a day for fairgoers, he said.
Asked if any least terns or nests had been spotted during the grading, Anton said, “Not to my knowledge.” Roger Vitaich, fairgrounds general manager, said that when state fish and game officials approved the alternate nesting area, “they didn’t tell us we had to wait until September,” the end of the tern nesting season, to bulldoze the area.
He also said the city was notified in agendas for Tuesday’s Fair Board meeting, which he said are delivered to Del Mar City Council members in advance of the meeting.
On Page 86 of the 125-page agenda, the “conservation easement” is discussed and a staff recommendation to approve the alternate site and to sign the agreement is included. The agreement, which was not approved by the Fair Board until Tuesday, provides for removal of an existing fence and regrading of the present site, “prior to this year’s fair.”
Mayor McMillan, in her letter to the Fair Board, proposed a meeting of the various agencies before the new nesting area is established. Fair Board members said they consider the matter closed.