Revving engines and bucking bulls offer year-round thrills at the Perris fairgrounds when it’s not Southern California Fair season.
But the owners of Perris Auto Speedway, Toro Wapo Arena Event Center and the Family A Fair Inc. concessions company fear what will happen to the car races, rodeos and live music — and the people whose jobs depend on them — when construction starts on a multi-year project at the Perris Dam.
They’ve sued the California Department of Water Resources, which is overseeing the Perris Dam Modernization Project. Since filing suit last October, they allege they’re being harassed by state agencies through overzealous inspections.
Ryan Endean, a state Water Resources spokesperson, said via email that the agency “understands the impact construction may have on businesses and individuals’ livelihoods.” Endean declined to comment further because the lawsuit is pending.
The project is expected to cost $40 million and be completed by 2025, Endean added. The lawsuit contends the project could last as long as eight or nine years.
In court papers, the California Attorney General’s office, which represents the state water agency, argues the lawsuit fails to establish that the state plans to seize the plaintiffs’ properties or that it “directly and specially interfered with plaintiffs’ use of their properties.”
Toro Wapo, the speedway and Family A Fair have long-term leases at the fairgrounds, also known as the Southern California Fair and Events Center. The board of directors for the 46th District Agricultural Association, a state agency in charge of the fairgrounds, did not respond to a request for comment.
The 108-acre fairgrounds is bordered to the east by the dam and Lake Perris reservoir. The California State Water Project, which provides drinking water for 27 million Southern Californians, built the dam in the early 1970s.
In 2005, Water Resources determined the dam was especially vulnerable to major damage from an earthquake. Since then, a three-phase retrofit project has strengthened the dam’s foundation and bolstered its infrastructure.
The last phase calls for building a 2-mile outlet channel paralleling the Ramona Expressway to funnel water from Lake Perris to an existing storm channel during an emergency. Right now, “water released from the dam in an emergency could flood downstream residents” because there’s nothing to direct it, according to the project’s environmental impact report.
Don Kazarian, managing member of the company that owns the speedway, has been at the fairgrounds for 27 years. NASCAR drivers cut their teeth on the speedway’s half-mile clay oval, said Kazarian, adding that spectators who watched races growing up come back with their own kids — “or they’re racing here.”
The speedway caters to “the grassroot guys,” Kazarian said. “It’s the carpenter. It’s the plumber that decides that he wants to build a street stock (car) and come out here and race.”
Family A Fair employs 30 to 50 people, said Celia Ramirez-Smith, who runs the company with her husband, Dale Smith.
“My children work for me. My mother works for me. Uncles (and) aunts,” Ramirez-Smith added.
Toro Wapo caters to the Hispanic market and hosts musical artists and rodeos. With Hispanics reeling from COVID-19 and economic hardship, “this is a place where people come to forget about those realities for a little bit,” said owner Xavier Ortiz, who has been at the fairgrounds for five years.
“Because if it’s not here, they have to drive an hour (and) 45 minutes to LA,” he said. “Who wants to go have a couple of beers (in LA) and then drive back?”
About 120,000 people a year visit the speedway, while Toro Wapo can host events with more than 12,000 attendees, according to the lawsuit.
Ortiz, Kazarian and Ramirez-Smith said the state water agency never reached out to them about the project. Construction noise and dust could ruin their guests’ experience, Ortiz and Kazarian said.
“Now you can have trucks everywhere, dust everywhere, rubble everywhere, noise,” he said. “I’m an outdoor music venue. I’m paying artists $200,000 for people to listen to them sing.”
As visitors head down the Ramona Expressway to the fairgrounds, “they are currently greeted with wide open expanses to their left and the beckoning parking lots and plaintiffs’ business attractions to the right,” the lawsuit states.
“Soon, those views will be gone, replaced by the uninviting sight of major construction equipment and severely diminished parking.”
Kazarian said the project could take up 20% of the speedway’s parking. Ortiz said 50% of his parking would be lost, including all of his VIP parking, for which he charges the most.
According to the lawsuit, the project is expected to generate 1,000 truck trips a day from construction and will make the already congested intersection of Ramona Expressway and Lake Perris Drive, where the fairgrounds is located, “all but impassable.”
“Imagine having to wait God knows how many hours to get in here,” Ortiz said. “How long are people gonna accept that before they go somewhere else?”
The project’s shifting timeframe makes it hard to schedule events, Ortiz and Kazarian said.
According to the state, construction would start in January of this year “and then they pushed it to February,” Ortiz said. “I couldn’t book anything because how could I book these types of artists in the middle of that mess?”
Not only might attendance suffer at the speedway and Toro Wapo, “we won’t have those other promoters come in to do the car shows and the other concerts (at the fairgrounds),” Ramirez-Smith said. “Why would they come to a place of construction?”
The lawsuit also accuses Water Resources of engaging in a sham appraisal process that deflated the worth of the plaintiffs’ businesses.
“Faced with the Hobson’s choice of accepting the distinctly unjust compensation offers, or of continuing to try to exist in the construction-related purgatory of still changing construction schedules … Plaintiffs’ only real recourse is to seek redress through the Courts,” the lawsuit argues.
The lawsuit happened because Water Resources “blew off” his clients, said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jules Radcliff.
“These people have been totally open with (Water Resources),” Radcliff said. “It’s not like … you have a million businesses (to deal with). You got three businesses. They don’t care. It’s that simple.”
Before the lawsuit, Kazarian said inspections by the state fire marshal and California Construction Authority, which oversees state fairgrounds, were routine. But after he sued, Kazarian said he’s been cited for infractions that he said never used to come up.
“I got handrails out there that are three quarters of an inch (to) an inch too low” according to inspectors, he said. “So now I’m having to spend $10,000 (on) welders to raise the hand rails that have been there for 27 years.”
Inspectors also told him to do significant work on a long-standing tower structure, Kazarian said. In all, he estimates he’s spent close to $100,000 so far to address issues cited by inspectors.
Ortiz said that, since the lawsuit, he’s had to spend $88,000 on inspection-related items, including a requirement to make his shaded roof fireproof.
“Now, this is three weeks before my season opener at a time where people can’t get material because of the delays with the supply chain,” Ortiz said. “I have to go to Tijuana to find a company that can sell me the material. And to save money, I have to go pick it up in a truck to bring it back in.”
Randy Crabtree, construction authority executive director, said via email that a “comprehensive review” of Southern California Fair facilities “identified issues with the (speedway’s) near 30-year-old grandstands and tower.”
“We are happy that Mr. Kazarian is actively working to complete repairs to bring his facility back into California building code compliance for the safety of all who visit the Southern California Fair, a California state-owned property,” Crabtree said.
“(The authority) takes its role seriously in ensuring that the valuable public assets that make up the entire California Fair Network continue to provide safe facilities for the public to enjoy.”
The fire marshal’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
To raise awareness of their fight, Kazarian, Ortiz and Ramirez-Smith launched a publicity campaign using the social media hashtag #saveperris.
“We’re open to having a discussion with (Water Resources), which is more than we have now,” Ortiz said. “Right now, we’re just being harassed and being forced out of business.”
Ortiz later added: “We just want to be able to stay in business and feed our families and help the community like we’ve been helping them. And we just don’t understand why they’re trying to hurt us. We’re the good guys, you know?”