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Can you hear me now? Photo by Chip Scheuer

Can you hear me now? Photo by Chip Scheuer

Max Kelley’s house on Rancho Brazil Lane, a pink Victorian with a blossoming flower garden and a water fountain, is about a mile and a half drive from the fairgrounds. It’s about a tenth of a mile as the crow flies. “It’s very quiet normally,” says Kelley, looking out from his wraparound porch at the tall eucalyptus trees that shield the fairgrounds from his view.

But on Friday nights, he says, the cars tearing around the dirt track are so loud the sound forces him inside and compels him to close his windows. Kelley claims to have measured 90 decibels from his back porch—comparable to a passing motorcycle or subway at close range, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Kelley, a retired carpenter, spearheads the Community Alliance for Fairground Accountability, which filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court against the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in July. CAFA’s long list of complaints bubbles down to a few short words: too much noise and traffic.

It wasn’t always this way, says Kelley. In light of slowly disappearing state funds (this year the fair got $100,000; next year it won’t get any), the fairgrounds has been adding events. First, in 2009, came a combination farmers market/flea market lasting from 10am to 6pm on Sundays. This year a new rodeo is scheduled for Oct. 1-2. And Kelley and another neighbor, Sierra Azul Gardens owner Lisa Rosendale, say the number of races at the fairground’s Ocean Speedway keeps increasing.

Kelley and the 23 other members of CAFA want a limit to how many races Ocean Speedway is allowed to have each year and a series of environmental impact reports on the rodeo and the Sunday market, which, at least at one time, featured music over the loudspeaker system.

Kelley, who moved next to the fairgrounds 10 years ago, says his beef with the fair is over new events, not the fairgrounds themselves. “Just to be clear, we are not opposed to the fairgrounds,” he says.

Fairground managers counter that the number of races has not actually increased. Ocean Speedway promoter John Prentice says that every year he puts 34 races on the schedule—four more than the previous promoter. But unlike the previous promoter, Prentice does not re-schedule races that get rained out. Consequently, he says, this year’s racing season will have 28 or 30 races. “The neighbors just counted our schedule and assumed we’re gonna get all those races in, and we’ve told them a million times we’re never going to get all those races in,” says Prentice.

As for the rodeo—which has spurred a separate lawsuit on behalf of animal rights groups citing waste management concerns—fairground officials say they’re exempt from having to file an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act because the grounds have held equestrian events, which, like the rodeo, are livestock-intensive, for years.

CAFA’s complaint, however, lists noise, traffic, water quality and other concerns—including neighborhood compatibility impacts. And Kelley says the fairgrounds shouldn’t need to increase revenue with a new rodeo in the first place. He notes that the $170,000 the farmer’s market brings in each year is well over the $100,000 in state funding that will be lost next year.

As for the flea and farmers market, fair officials say they’ve addressed the noise problem.

At least one neighbor is satisfied with the fairground’s efforts at mitigation. Billy Colbert, who lives on Whiting Road, says he used to be upset over the night races and the music at the Sunday farmers market, which promoters have since turned down. “For Christ’s sakes, the world’s too noisy as it is,” says Colbert, adding that the races also calmed down since promoters started requiring new mufflers on the cars. “Lately,” he says, “I’ve been outside and they haven’t sounded just about at all.”

Not Fair
CAFA’s suit, which puts even more pressure on the stressed fairgrounds, has critics across the county up in arms. Michael Olson, who hosts a radio show on KSCO about food and agriculture, fears the lawsuit will force the already financially strained fairgrounds into closing—which would be a first for a California county fair.

“What did he move there for, anyway? What was he thinking?” asks Olson, who is also the general manager of KSCO. (Olson stresses that his views don’t reflect those of the right-leaning talk radio station, but concedes KSCO has covered the issue a lot.) “That’s what I wonder about these people. Are they trying to increase their property values at the expense of the citizens of Santa Cruz County? Well, obviously. That, to me, is the bottom line.”

KSCO helped mobilize a rally for the fair in Scotts Valley and promoted a petition in support of the grounds, which more than 150 people have signed.
Fairground supporters say the fair is a unique experience with far-reaching benefits. “The fair brings camaraderie,” says Celeste Freedman, president of the Watsonville Republican Club, which sponsored the rally. “It’s where you can gather with people you don’t know and they’re smiling and having a good time.”

Butcher and Santa Cruz farmers market vendor Chris LaVeque, who opened his artisanal butcher shop El Salchichero in February, says the county fair is what first sparked his interest in livestock. “It gets a lot of people who are not in the agricultural community to be passionate about it,” says LaVeque, who started showing cows and chickens at the fair when he was 7 years old. (LaVeque did not express an opinion about the lawsuit.)

Steve Stagnaro, the fair’s marketing director, says the fairgrounds have already been forced to eliminate several upgrades and improvements in addition to a general plan. “The amount of money it will cost to defend and keep the fairgrounds open is unknown at this time,” says Stagnaro, media director for the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. “You can’t predict what it will cost.”

Ad It Up
On his dining room table, Kelley has a mountain of paperwork that includes of two full-page Santa Cruz Sentinel advertisements criticizing him. Kelley held onto the full-page advertisements partly out of shock and also because friends have suggested suing for libel. That would bring a new civil lawyer into the mess.

To his credit, Kelley has tolerated his share of misinformation. One theory advanced by critics is that he is a developer who would secretly like to turn the fairgrounds into a strip mall complete with a hardware store. “I’ve never developed anything. I have no intention of being a developer,” says Kelley. “We have no association with any developers at all in our group.”

Kelley says every resident of Rancho Brazil Lane has signed a petition in favor of the lawsuit and claims the suit has thousands of supporters—though the number of additional sources he offers a reporter is less than you could count on one hand, and some of those are reluctant to speak on the record.

“I understand where Max is coming from,” says Colbert, who lives about two blocks from Kelley and has eased his criticisms since the farmer’s market turned down its music. “In the beginning it was really super loud.”

Additional reporting contributed by Jenny Cain.

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