City moves to take over management of Petaluma fairgrounds

Interested community members packed the Petaluma City Council chambers on Monday, Oct. 24 for a meeting and Council vote on the future of Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds.|

There was a full house at the Petaluma City Hall chambers late into Monday night, as City Council members approved recommendations from city staff that will ultimately take property management control from the state and give it to the city.

In a late-night unanimous vote deep into their Oct. 24 meeting, City Council members moved forward with a resolution that calls for city staff to transition the 55-acre property’s maintenance, management and subleasing agreements from out of the hands of the state-run 4th District Agricultural Association – which has leased the property from the city for $1 per year for the past 50 years – and into their own.

The vote also came an amendment, put forth by Mayor Teresa Barrett, promising that at least 20 acres of the property will be dedicated to the annual five-day Sonoma-Marin Fair, and to ensure space for evacuation center purposes.

Although labeled a “Fairgrounds Workshop,“ the meeting agenda was revised Friday afternoon to include an actionable resolution – a move members of the 4th District Agricultural Association, including its CEO Tawny Tesconi, found hard to understand.

“As a person who’s been in public service most of my life, I was disappointed in the outcome of Monday night, but I was even more disappointed in the process,” she told the Argus-Courier.

In an email, Petaluma City Manager Peggy Flynn said the resolution added Friday “follows the staff report and does not provide anything additional, with the exception of allowing Council to take action and/or revise the principles as needed to give staff high-level direction to guide efforts on the Fairgrounds.”

Tesconi, whose experience running fairgrounds includes managing Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fair from 1999 to 2007 as well as managing Sonoma County Fair, said she was also disappointed by council members’ seeming disregard for the report developed through Healthy Democracy, a nonprofit which – to the DAA’s surprise at the time – was hired by the city to assemble a panel of locals through a lottery process, who then met multiple times to hash out their own suggested future uses of the fairgrounds.

“So much of what Healthy Democracy is promoting for the site is what 4th District Agricultural Association does,” Tesconi said.

The Monday night meeting, which lasted almost six hours, included two rounds of public comment, where a long line of residents expressed gratitude for the panelists’ work but also a mix of support and disapproval for the staff recommendation to shift control of the property over to the city. One resident referred to a one-meeting decision on such a major issue as a “slap to all the community.”

Michael Parks, a Sonoma-Marin Fair board member, said city leadership never really tried to sit down with the fair board to discuss the many ways their interests overlap.

“Bring us to the table,” he said. “We are the solution, not the problem. We have resources that you don’t have,” including county and state support and a potential $20 million resiliency fund.

In an email to the Argus-Courier, Assistant City Manager Brian Cochran responded that “While the Fair Board may have been (and hopefully still is) interested in negotiating what a successor agreement might look like, City staff did not have direction from the City Council in terms of what to negotiate or any sort of negotiation parameters that would have assisted those negotiations. In Monday’s agenda item, staff sought and received clear Council direction on how they hope to move forward.”

He added, “With the Council direction we received Monday night, staff can now engage with the Fair Board to craft a successor agreement that works for all parties within the parameters that Council set forth.”

Three visions

The council resolution, which provided “guiding principles” to city staff, came as the fairgrounds’ current lease is set to expire at the end of 2023. After discussions had stagnated for years on how a future lease would go forward, the city in late February hired Healthy Democracy, whose efforts with the panelists resulted in three possible visions for how the property could be utilized for generations to come. These were presented formally for the first time Monday.

The first vision focused on a total transformation of the property to feature a new civic center and outdoor amphitheater, as well as trees in the parking lot near the swim center and a year-round farmers market in the same area, active transportation features, and roundabouts at street intersections.

The second vision focused on keeping current uses in place, and emphasized keeping the swim center, skate park and library areas as is. This vision also called for a new multi-use amphitheater in the fairgrounds.

The third vision focused on preserving all current tenants at the site, with enhancements such as sound mitigation features at Petaluma Speedway. It also proposed new bike and pedestrian paths, a new parking structure with a park on top, new restroom facilities and a fenced-in dog park, as well as the addition of more native flora.

Panelists agreed that any final plan should include building and facility renovations. A city-hired firm found the fairgrounds’ buildings require more than $12.2 million of work.

Live Oak complaints

Among those who supported a city-run fairgrounds property was a group of parents and school board members at Live Oak Charter School, the K-8 program that has leased space for its campus in the fairgrounds since 2001.

The group said the 4th District Agricultural Association has deferred necessary maintenance to where, in some instances, parents and school board members had to step up to provide their own services to fix issues like plumbing for unusable bathrooms, drainage issues and repairs for broken windows.

“Live Oak Charter has no facilities management, and when anything is needed the response is slow and always inadequate,” said Chris Fox, a Live Oak parent and volunteer board member. “If the 4th DAA lease on our facilities continues, we would expect two things to be true – the rental costs for our property would increase and they would pass on that cost to us, (and) any property improvements or investments will be passed directly to the tenants.”

Next steps

City staff proposed that an agreement on future uses would come in March or April of next year. The means of reaching that agreement was not immediately clear – but Council member Brian Barnacle stated that, although Monday’s decision marks the beginning of a transitional period, “this is not the end” for current tenants.

“We’re going to be working together with the Fair Board to create a long-term plan and envision for how we work together, and really invest in our partnership,” Barnacle said

Many were concerned that staff did not enter the meeting with a clear plan for how they would manage the fairgrounds after assuming control, or how the city would pay for its wide range of costs. Council member Kevin McDonnell, who eventually voted in favor of the resolution anyway, said there were “too many unknowns” so far.

Council member Dave King, whose overall support for staff recommendations was mirrored by Council members Mike Healy and Barnacle, also expressed concern for the liability the city would be taking on with its responsibility of the property. But he agreed the land should not be privately managed.

“I think it is something that is vital for the city and the residents, both of the city and the region, that public entities control that land,” King said. Those comments were not directed at the Fair Board, which is a public entity.

$20 million ‘off the table’

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said he was not surprised by the city’s decision, but was surprised it took place at a time when a management plan had not been mapped out with involved stakeholders.

In an email to the Argus-Courier, Rabbitt said he had facilitated a meeting between the city and California’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture to discuss an opportunity to receive up to $20 million of a state investment toward a state-of-the-art evacuation center, which was contingent upon a long-term lease agreement with the 4th District Agricultural Association.

“I fear this tremendous investment opportunity is off the table with Monday evening’s Council action. That is unfortunate to say the least,“ Rabbitt said in the Wednesday email. ”I will continue to work on facilitating a regional solution to the needs of the 4th District Agricultural Association which play such a vital role in Sonoma County’s rich agricultural history.“

Unclear language

As the city is working to update its General Plan, a central question for where the fairgrounds will fall in that process has focused on whether or not the property will be used for development uses like affordable housing. But for the foreseeable future, housing will remain out of the question, staff said, as the property was left off the inventory list for the city’s Housing Element and was listed as a least-wanted use by Healthy Democracy panelists.

But what confused and stirred many residents was that – despite the Healthy Democracy panelists’ call for the City Council to preserve the agricultural history and honor the legacy of the land at stake – some of the language in the city’s staff report appeared to contradict that guideline.

According to the staff report, “The long-term value of having a Fairgrounds site in Petaluma has been supported by the community, although the Fairgrounds could be considered for relocation to a site with greater flexibility or redevelop the existing site to meet the economic and use needs of the Fair District.” The report states that the fairgrounds could be part of an expected December discussion on a General Plan update.

The front end of the fairgrounds property, running along East Washington Street, is currently zoned as mixed-use, while the majority of the property going back from East Washington toward the freeway is zoned as civil facility, according to staff.

Argus-Courier editor Don Frances contributed to this report.

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