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Here’s how the controversial new Petaluma fairgrounds planning process will work

Despite pushback from fairgrounds advocates aiming to preserve tradition, Petaluma will move forward with a lottery-based decision-making process to help determine the future use of the city’s 55-acre fairgrounds property once the current lease expires at the end of next year.

In a unanimous vote late Monday, City Council members approved a contract with an Oregon-based consultant to guide the work, including appointing a resident-based panel to work with other stakeholder representatives to form a recommendation for how to move forward with Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds usage.

“This is one of the biggest assets of our city, and it is important to be looking at it and making an informed decision, and based on the best input,” said Mayor Teresa Barrett. “This looks like the engine that is going to pull this train into the station.”

But a number of residents, along with members of the Fair Board, objected to the process, and the hiring of Healthy Democracy, suggesting a number of alternatives to the lottery-based process for shaping the future of one of the city’s most treasured properties.

“While in principle the addition of a fact-finding group may be valuable to the process, we take issue with the basic construct that, under the current proposal, anticipates a very small number of people being selected from a very incomplete list of stakeholders in the community,” Fair Board members said in a joint letter to city officials.

Additionally, Sonoma-Marin Fair CEO Kristie Hubacker said during the meeting that any final decision on the fairgrounds’ use should be put to a public vote, echoing a strongly held sentiment among those seeking to preserve current uses.

The meeting Monday came amid years of discussion and controversy over the fate of the 55-acre, central Petaluma property. For the past 50 years, the city has leased the site to the 4th District Agricultural Association for $1 per year. The association operates the Sonoma-Marin Fair, subleases portions of the parcel and also maintains the property. The existing lease is set to expire in December 2023.

The lottery process, publicly unveiled Jan. 28, comes more than two years after discussions were set to begin. But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed those talks until now, as the city will move toward appointing a representative panel to help decide the fairgrounds’ fate.

To form the panel of 30 to 40 residents, potential candidates would be invited to participate through a mailed letter sent to 10,000 randomly selected residences. The letter would ask those residents to respond by filling out a questionnaire which would ask for demographic information such as age, gender, race and ethnicity. Residents would then need to return their response to Healthy Democracy, which would identify the most prominent demographic targets for the panel to match.

At a public lottery selection event, the panel would be selected anonymously and through a third-party selection software, which Healthy Democracy said would ensure the panel would represent the community’s demographics.

The selected panelists would then meet with a stakeholder committee for a total of 90 hours over three weekends later this Spring to explore and analyze options for property uses. Each would earn $20 per hour for their time.

The stakeholder committee would consist of representatives from about a dozen sectors of the community – those including local agricultural groups, BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S, nonprofits, schools, housing groups, recreation groups, property neighbors and current tenants. The presence of the wide range of community members would bring “breadth and depth” to the consideration process, according to information in the city’s staff report.

The total cost of the process is estimated at roughly $425,000, which includes the contract for Healthy Democracy workers and panelist compensation, including child or elder care and any necessary translation services.

Project cost remained at the center of public speculation throughout the meeting, but council members refracted criticism over spending amounts. Council member Brian Barnacle said “there’s nothing more worthy of half a million dollars than having an inclusive process that brings all the voices forward.”

Council member Dave King also pushed back at calls to let all city voters weigh in on ways to move forward by incorporating a ballot measure.

“There are a lot of ways to go about making a public decision, and most of the time we hear from people who are really interested in the issue at hand and have come to the council meetings,” King said. “And we don’t hear from the entire community. There are literally 40,000 adults in this city who have never once come to a council meeting to weigh in on an issue.”

But those in favor of maintaining current uses raised concerns about representation for those living outside of Petaluma city limits, including those who have participated in the fair’s numerous offerings for generations.

Today, nearly a dozen businesses and organizations currently offer year-round services at the fairgrounds property, including Live Oak Charter School, Java Hut coffee, Rebuilding Together, El Roy’s Express Mex, Happy Hearts Preschool, Petaluma Speedway, Play Dog Play and more.

Those, as well as events such as the Sonoma-Marin Fair, the Petaluma Music Festival, World’s Ugliest Dog contest and the annual 4th of July fireworks show, would be affected if the city should shift the future of property use.

Among the changes already floated: housing development, mixed-use park areas and even a hotel.

But many residents, including neighbors of the busy fairgroudns property, have looked forward to the proposed process all along as they hope to see a shift away from events that traditionally take place at the fairgrounds, including those at the Petaluma Speedway and annual music festivals.

“Months of roaring stock car racing make it so that we cannot plan anything in our own backyards and enjoy the basic joy of being home on a weekend,” said midtown resident Gina Fabiano.

The effort to map out the fairgrounds’ future use comes as the city is charting an inventory of sites that can be used in the 6th cycle Housing Element, which lays out upcoming needs, goals and policies for necessary housing development as part of the state-prescribed Regional Housing Needs Allocation. City leaders are required to submit an adopted Housing Element to the State Department of Housing and Urban Development in January 2023, and Petaluma has fallen behind affordable housing targets in recent years.

The public will have an opportunity to engage with the panel on its final recommendations, before those are presented to the City Council to consider and determine next steps for the property, the city’s relationship with the Sonoma-Marin Fair Board and land use designations for the site in the City’s General Plan update. Those final recommendations are expected to be completed in July.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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