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Compiled by Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

Back in January 2021, then-Mayor John Taylor predicted people and businesses would bounce back from the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic when vaccines were widely available, and that people gradually would return to downtown restaurants and businesses.

For the most part, that forecast held true.

The year 2021 could be considered a year of progress and development in San Juan Capistrano, and a recovery of sorts for the world at large—even as the pandemic continues, and people struggle. In-person gatherings returned and mask requirements were lifted in the state mid-year, before mask requirements were reinstated in December.

Locally, this year marked the official water utility transfer to the Santa Margarita Water District and opening of Putuidem Village in the town’s Northwest Open Space—finales for projects years in the making. The city also increased paid parking downtown and took steps to rezone certain areas in order to meet state housing requirements.

Councilmember Howard Hart led the charge in addressing human trafficking in massage parlors, and The Tea House and Ramos House Café on Los Rios Street got the green light to apply for extended alcohol services. A long-term operator for the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park is close to being secured, and likely staying in familiar hands.

On the education front, pandemic measures—including an expected coming student vaccine mandate and ongoing mask requirements while on campus—continued to receive backlash from parents and community members who frequently protested in front of Capistrano Unified School District offices and spoke out during Board of Trustees meetings.

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January

A new Chick-fil-A location opens on Del Obispo Street.

Senior citizens in San Juan Capistrano start to get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and mostly report feeling fine afterward.

February

The City Council approves a request for proposals for uses at the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park that would permit considerations of a variety of uses, including non-equestrian activities. This kicks off a consideration process that lasts throughout the year.

Councilmember Howard Hart authorizes city staff to review ordinances related to massage parlors, due to concerns about illicit parlors’ role in human trafficking. The city eventually revises regulations permitting parlors to be shut down and remain closed if illicit activity is reported, which leads to some parlors in town being closed.

Roy Nunn, a longtime San Juan resident and architect who had a hand in several local projects—including Serra Plaza—dies at the age of 71. Nunn also served on local government boards and coached youth sports.

March

The pandemic reaches the one-year mark.

The City Council approves a resolution to continue expanding the parking lot at Paseo Adelanto and Ramos Street, in anticipation of a busy downtown summer season.

April

The City Council approves the first reading of an ordinance regarding sidewalk vendors. The in-depth ordinance has numerous requirements, including limiting vending to paved sidewalks and walkways and being 100 feet away from other vendors.

Mayor John Taylor begins his Mayor’s Lunches at a different restaurant in San Juan almost every Friday to promote local dining and chat with residents. His first stop is at Mayfield’s Restaurant and Marketplace downtown.

Live music resumes at The Coach House, which had been halted throughout the pandemic. Attendance was limited at first, but eventually returned to full capacity after being allowed under state regulations.

Parmiss Restaurant, a new Mediterranean restaurant, opens in the Mercado Village shopping center.

May

The CUSD Board of Trustees approves renaming Serra High School—a continuation school in San Juan—and changing it back to its original name of Capistrano Union High School, partially due to scrutiny over Saint Junipero Serra’s treatment of indigenous people.

The Field of Honor flag display at Mission San Juan Capistrano paying tribute to military veterans over Memorial Day weekend draws thousands of visitors.

June

California lifts the majority of pandemic restrictions, including mask requirements for fully vaccinated people in most settings. The inside of Swallow’s Inn reopens with lots of people there to celebrate, and the Fiesta Association hosts an El Presidente Ball that fills up the back room at El Adobe de Capistrano.

Paid parking is instituted in the city’s multi-modal parking lot, near Trevor’s at the Tracks and Rancho Capistrano Winery.

The City Council approves the annual city budget and a seven-year capital improvement plan, which includes funding to address street maintenance and the installation of synthetic turf at Stonefield Park.

The CUSD Board of Trustees approves a resolution urging a change from the state when it comes to student mask requirements on campus, essentially requesting masks be optional.

The Coffee Chat forum returns to its in-person format at Hennessey’s Tavern for the first time since the pandemic. City Manager Ben Siegel is the guest speaker to talk about local projects on the horizon.

July

The San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library bookstore reopens.

The City Council approves staff recommendations to initiate a study related to updating the city’s Housing Element and rezoning for such, which is required every eight years for municipalities throughout California by state law. An exception is made for rezoning the Avenida Los Amigos neighborhood after outcry from the area’s residents.

A new mural at Capistrano Plaza depicting San Juan Capistrano’s history by sculptor Randy Morgan debuts. It can be seen when passing Hennessey’s Tavern.

FKN Bread opens a downtown bakery across from Hennessey’s Tavern. The business is owned by married couple Dave and Bree VandenBerg and is named for their three young boys: Finn, Kane, and Nash. It sells fresh-baked bread and other food items.

August

The Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission approves the water utility transfer agreement between the city and Santa Margarita Water District, marking one of the final steps toward the annexation becoming official.

Ortega’s Capistrano Trading Post, a souvenir shop in downtown San Juan, is indefinitely closed after a vehicle crashes into the store.

Students and educators head back to campus—for a full five days a week—as the 2021-22 school year starts. Masks are still required.

Robert Ridland helps guide the U.S. show jumping team to a silver medal in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.

September

Live in-person theatrical performances return to Camino Real Playhouse, which was mostly closed during the pandemic. The performance season resumes with The Nerd, which was scheduled to be showcased before the 2020 shutdown.

The Ridland Group and Frontier Real Estate Investments, the latter headed up by local developer and resident Dan Almquist, give presentations to the City Council regarding their proposals to manage the RMV Riding Park. The two are the main candidates under the RFP put out by the city. A third candidate called Capistrano Experience withdrew its initial proposal.

Ramen Shack, a new ramen restaurant, opens downtown at Capistrano Plaza. Customers can order ramen dishes on their phone while seated at a counter or table.

The City Council approves a General Plan and code amendment study that allows high-density housing developments on four parcels on Doheny Park Road, to satisfy state housing requirements.

The city’s gateway landscaping project, which added low stone masonry walls and plants to the Ortega Highway and Del Obispo Street intersection, wraps up. The renovations were done to complement the nearby Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

October

The City Council approves setting a Pavement Condition Index score goal of 75 or higher, in order to maintain adequate roads. Further street maintenance funding is secured for San Juan through the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

A proposed affordable housing development at the end of Don Juan Avenue—a residential cul-de-sac with a narrow street—draws scrutiny in the community due to expected traffic increases and safety concerns. City staff relays these concerns to the out-of-town developer, and is currently waiting on a response from the developer. Numerous other residents also speak about the general need for affordable housing.

The council approves instituting paid parking behind Swallow’s Inn.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a vaccine mandate will be required for students if they want to continue attending school in person once the Food and Drug administration fully approves the vaccines, which sparks backlash from some in South Orange County—including through a school walk-out and protest outside the CUSD offices. The CUSD Board of Trustees approves sending a letter to state officials urging them to rethink the vaccine mandate.

Full-scale in-person Halloween events return to San Juan, including the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society’s Ghost & Legends Tour and trick-or-treating on Los Rios Street.

November

The City Council approves turning the city-owned tennis courts on Camino Capistrano into pickleball courts, due to the growing popularity of pickleball and the underutilized nature of the current tennis courts.

Some parents and students praise CUSD’s Cultural Proficiency Plan, which is intended to rectify inequities through cultural awareness training and other means. Other parents and residents claim the plan equates to Critical Race Theory—a claim about education made nationally by conservatives—which is disputed by CUSD officials.

The City Council approves three new names for the city’s Wall of Recognition: former longtime Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ronald Denman, equestrian Kathy Holman, and past Mayor Joe Soto.

The city and Santa Margarita Water District celebrate the official water utility transfer with a reception at the groundwater recovery plant at City Hall.

Landsea Homes—a home developer based in Newport Beach—and the city hold a groundbreaking ceremony to herald new homes that will be built at the corner of Calle Arroyo and Paseo Tirador, near 24 Hour Fitness. The new communities are called Avelina and Petra, with a total of 132 homes. Single-family homes and townhomes will start from the high $700,000 range.

An announcement is made that the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park will host the FEI Nations Jumping CUP USA in May 2022. The event is a show jumping competition to qualify for the annual final competition held in Spain in late September and expected to provide a big economic benefit for San Juan.

December

Putuidem Village opens at the town’s Northwest Open Space, after years in the making. The cultural area honors the area’s early indigenous people. The Native American and San Juan community celebrate with a ceremony that includes ritual dances and remarks from descendants of the city’s ancestors.

The city announces they will begin negotiations with Hillary and Robert Ridland to continue managing the RMV Riding Park, this time for a long-term lease of at least 20 years. Almquist withdraws his proposal the day before the council was scheduled to decide on whom to negotiate with, and announces his desire to establish equestrian activities at the Northwest Open Space.

The council approves allowing The Tea House and Ramos House Café to move forward on requests to expand their alcohol services. The two restaurants want to start offering high-end cocktails and expand into dinner service. A final decision on the requests is expected to be made by the council next year.

The council also approves updating the city seal, with a proposed new seal featuring a bell (a symbol associated with Mission San Juan Capistrano, which has historic bells) and a swallow bird. This means Saint Junipero Serra, who is on the current seal, will effectively be removed from it. Councilmember Troy Bourne, who brought forth the idea updating the seal along with Councilmember Sergio Farias, said it should be updated because the extensive design of the current seal makes it hard to come up legibly on a smartphone. Input will be solicited from the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, and a new design is expected to be implemented next year.

Derek Reeve is named the new mayor and Howard Hart the new mayor pro tem (replacing Reeve in the role) during the council’s annual reorganization.

Capistrano Lights, the Mission’s annual holiday program featuring a lighted tree and holiday carolers, returns at full capacity.

The Stand, a restaurant that sells what it calls “American classic redefined” such as burgers and salads, opens on Del Obispo Street. The fast casual eatery also has locations in Rancho Santa Margarita and Newport Beach.

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.

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