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Petaluma officials revisit fairgrounds discussion, introduce new decision-making approach

City leaders in Petaluma this week introduced what they’re calling a “new and bold approach” for deciding how the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds property will be used in the future, drawing fresh concerns and reviving old debates in the process.

In their first meeting since being established two years ago, fairgrounds subcommittees representing the city of Petaluma and the 4th District Agricultural Association, which operates the fairgrounds, discussed a lottery-style system for determining the fairgrounds’ future.

Led by the city-hired consultant “Healthy Democracy,” the strategy would gather a randomized group of Petaluma residents and stakeholders to make recommendations about the of the 55-acre parcel near Petaluma’s downtown core.

But, with 283 residents attending, the majority of those who gave input at the meeting expressed confusion and discontentment toward the city’s planned approach.

“I’m not sure having an outside entity who is not familiar with the culture of our community be the leaders in this process,” said a Cotati resident named Bonnie, who said she has been going to the fair for 30 years. “I appreciate the quest for transparency, but there are people here who need their voices heard, and I don’t think with the current process that is happening.”

The meeting came as the fairgrounds operator’s $1 per year, 50-year lease is set to expire at the end of 2023, sparking worries among many residents that the fairgrounds property might no longer host an annual fair.

While specific future uses for the fairgrounds were not yet the focus of discussion, city leaders sought to sooth worries about predetermined plans. Council member Dave King, who is one of three council members on the subcommittee along with Mike Healy and Kevin McDonnell, said nobody had settled on a path for the fairgrounds’ future.

“No decisions have been made on the subcommittee,” King said. “No meetings with developers, no meetings with hotel builders, no done deals. None.”

City officials say the goal is to seat a panel of residents, all selected randomly via mail invitations. The list of respondents would then be whittled down to better represent city demographics. Details weren’t immediately available about how many people would be seated on the panel, or when the panel would be selected.

That panel would then conduct research and interview dozens of experts and stakeholders before formulating a policy recommendation, city officials said.

But the specter of change has spooked many who have fond memories of the fairs of the past, and those who currently operate on fairgrounds property.

Chris Fox is a board member at Live Oak Charter School, which made its home in the fairgrounds nearly two decades ago.

“We as a school community are at an existential moment here,” Fox said at the Tuesday meeting. “We have a high-quality education program that is very rooted in Petaluma.”

Live Oak is not the only organization that depends on the fairgrounds property for its survival. Aside from the five-day Sonoma-Marin carnival itself, the property is also occupied by Rebuilding Together Petaluma, the Petaluma Speedway and more that use it throughout the year.

City manager Peggy Flynn reassured the city is committed to making sure the process is done in a timely, thorough and thoughtful manner, and is confident that Healthy Democracy leaders can help the city succeed in making sure all voices are included.

“I heard of (Healthy Democracy) because they attended a league conference and heard them present there,” Flynn said as she explained how the nonprofit was selected. “So we invited them to make a proposal to our community.”

Mike Parks, 1st Vice President of the 4th District Agricultural Association’s Board of Directors, and 11-year board member Dominic Grossi were among those who questioned how those such as ranchers and others who live outside of Petaluma city limits would be equally represented in the process.

It’s not year clear how wide the city will cast its net for potential panelists.

Grossi also pushed for a one-year extension on the lease, which he said would help create more breathing room in the timeline of the process.

“It might just take a little bit of pressure off this,” Grossi said. “Then we could get this done and get it done right.”

Former city council member and current fair board member Brian Sobel said while the city has good intentions of creating a lottery-based panel, officials will have to “take a hard look” at how the process is done to ensure that residents and business owners are getting a fair say in the future of the fairgrounds.

“I don’t disagree at all with the idea that lots of people should be involved,” Sobel said. “But picking winners and losers is a problem. It’s going to come back to haunt all of us.”

Residents also expressed concerns about incorporating youth opinions in the process, as many of the 60,000 annual fair attendees are local students. One 15-year-old West County student, who said she is an active member of the Sonoma County 4-H program, spoke out during the meeting and noted the importance of the fair in her own life.

Another resident, Lucy Fairweather, who said she lives near the fairgrounds, sent a letter to city officials prior to meeting.

“While I understand the nostalgia many in this area feel for the Fair, it feels like there is a lot of land that could be put to better use for local residents,” Fairweather said.

Officials said it’s a discussion that will most likely take months. Further public conversation is expected to take place in a February city council meeting.

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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