Thursday, January 6, 2011 | Both sides of the ongoing battle over the Orange County Fairgrounds say the month-long delay on all legal proceedings sought by Gov. Jerry Brown this week means he’s on their side.
To Facilities Management West, the Newport Beach-based company trying to buy the 150-acre Costa Mesa property, Brown’s action means they still have a shot. Meanwhile, the groups working to prevent the sale say it’s just a stay of execution.
Late last month, the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a restraining order on the outgoing Schwarzenegger administration’s attempt to complete the sale until February.
Most observers of the Fairgrounds saga saw this as the final nail in the coffin for the deal because it is widely believed that Brown is against the sale of the Fairgrounds and 11 other state properties that Schwarzenegger tried to sell.
However, the new governor has been somewhat hard to read on the issue. At a Labor Day picnic in Santa Ana last year, Brown said he didn’t have a position on the Fairgrounds sale.
On Wednesday, Brown, through the state Attorney General’s Office, asked that the delay be extended until March so he can decide whether the deal makes sense for California. Both sides agreed to the request.
“It’s a good signal he’s taken a whole new look at this,” said attorney Wylie Aitken, who is representing two of Orange County’s most senior elected officials and local activists in a lawsuit opposing the sale.
“If he was going to let it go through, why intervene at all?” said Aitken (also a Voice of OC board member). “We shouldn’t be peddling public land at these bargain basement prices.”
OC Marketplace swap meet operators Tel Phil Enterprises also has filed a lawsuit arguing that the bidding process for the property was not transparent or fair.
FMW, however, characterized the delay as a win for their ownership of the property because Brown didn’t kill the deal outright.
“We look forward to the opportunity to present the facts to the new governor,” said Guy Lemmon, FMW spokesman. “We are confident that once he completes his thorough review, he’ll conclude the sale provides important benefits to the state, county and city during the financial crisis.
“The sale to FMW will also protect the public’s interest in the continuation of the OC Fair, other Fairgrounds activities and the overall heritage of our community jewel.”
The future of that “community jewel” — situated near South Coast Plaza between the 405 and 55 freeways — has been in play for the better part of the last two years.
Since Schwarzenegger first talked about selling the land, and his local Fair Board appointees tried to buy it through a nonprofit (they would later question whether the state even owned it), public opinion has largely been against the move.
In addition to polls, there have been petitions (with more than 50,000 signatures) along with scores of city and county resolutions stating opposition to any sale of the Fairgrounds.
Costa Mesa voters — worried over potential development of the land — adopted restrictive general plan amendments by an overwhelming margin during last year’s primary election.
Despite public opposition, the Schwarzenegger administration continually pushed for the sale for much of 2010 after getting authorizing legislation adopted that many Orange County legislators later attacked, arguing they were misled.
There were several aborted auctions held for the Fairgrounds property, and the price eventually got to $96 million, when Costa Mesa City Council members said they were forced to purchase the property with a private sector partner, which turned out to be FMW.