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City revisits future of Petaluma fairgrounds after year-long delay

After a nearly year-long pause initiated by the pandemic and other unexpected emergencies, city and fairground leaders are restarting initial discussions over the future of the 55-acre property as its 50-year lease approaches expiration.

The fair’s operator, the state-run 4th District Agricultural Association, has occupied the city-owned property since 1973, paying $1 per year. The current lease expires next year, following a one-time 25-year extension of its original 25-year term. That date remains a goalpost for the city in reaching a decision over how to reimagine the centrally located and valuable expanse of land.

City Council Monday night decided not to take up a lease extension posed by the fairground operators, which would have tacked on another 12 months to its original Dec. 31, 2022 end-date, intended to make up for a lost year of progress.

Mayor Teresa Barrett and Councilmember D’Lynda Fischer expressed strong disapproval of the extension, calling the decision potentially financially irresponsible and a move that could “tie the hands” of future council members. Barrett said the 50-year lease is the “the worst contract the city has ever entered into,” and said she is unconvinced that there are any fiscal advantages to extending the agreement, a sentiment Fischer echoed.

“We still have two years, we still have 24 months to get the work done, and I absolutely agree that this would be fiscally irresponsible to say to the fair board, ‘You can have this property again for another year for just a dollar,’” Fischer said. “I think it’s much more valuable than that and we should have control of it.”

The city’s ad hoc committee, staffed by Councilmembers Mike Healy, Dave King and Kevin McDonnell, will resume the work started last year with the fair board’s ad hoc committee in order to identify the next steps in public outreach, said City Manager Peggy Flynn.

The location currently hosts several users and leaseholders, including Live Oak Charter School, Happy Hearts Preschool, the Petaluma Speedway and the popular annual Sonoma-Marin Fair. In recent years, it has also served as a critical harbor for evacuees and their livestock, fleeing increasingly common wildfires and flood events.

The approaching lease expiration has long been seen as an opportunity to explore new uses for a parcel of land that has become increasingly valuable.

“The fairgrounds is such an essential piece of infrastructure for the community, culturally and in emergencies,” resident Joshua Simmons said at Monday’s meeting. “So I’m glad to hear people talk about this as an opportunity to really think hard about what it can be for our community.”

The first public meeting to gauge the community’s thoughts on the fairgrounds packed City Hall Jan. 31, 2020, highlighting its importance to the agricultural community and to housing advocates who want to see some of the acreage used for affordable units.

Potential new uses for the property, which don’t necessarily preclude current uses and leaseholders or the future of the annual fair, includes housing, hospitality, event center space, commercial space, sports fields, parks, and a civic center. The city has also named an emergency shelter and staging area as possibility.

Yet it’s also seen as the cultural and agricultural heart of the town, something dozens of residents passionately exclaimed during the February 2020 meeting. Brian Barnacle, now vice mayor, was among those members of the public who recounted the importance of the annual fair to many Petaluma families.

On Monday, citing his strong connection to the event, Barnacle tussled with the option to extend the lease, expressing overall displeasure with years of little to no progress and a lack of an updated plan after events of 2020 sidelined the process.

“I’m concerned that we don’t have a transition plan for the governing structure, we don’t have a plan right now for community participation process,” he said. “It’s not a matter of the shortcomings that have gone in this year but the shortcomings that have gone on in the past decade.”

In an email, Flynn said the city’s goal will continue to be to engage the community in a robust conversation about how to both retain the fair and create a new vision for the parcel that meets current goals and needs.

An updated timeline and outreach process is not yet clear, though Flynn said the re-engagement of this issue will dovetail with the General Plan update, which kicked off last year.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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