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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

Underscoring the contentious and complex nature of the topic, the San Juan Capistrano City Council voted Tuesday to table an agenda item setting specific hours and regulations for alcohol service at The Tea House and Ramos House Café.

City staff recommended councilmembers introduce an ordinance that reinstates an accessory use permit process but only allowing the two Los Rios Street food establishments, which were granted AUPs in the 1990s, the ability to amend their AUPs for expanded alcohol service. Proposed staff recommendations also called for alcohol service to not go past 9 p.m.

The two restaurants had proposed alcohol sales be allowed until 10 p.m.

A sign at The Ramos House Café gives public notice of their involvement in a request to request officials for extending alcohol sale hours. Photo: Collin Breaux

A council subcommittee will review the matter further before bringing the item back for discussion. Councilmember Troy Bourne said the community can generally agree everyone wants to make the Los Rios Historic District a better place and that the neighborhood is changing.

“We start to disagree about what Los Rios is supposed to be as it’s changing,” Bourne said. “There’s some fundamental disagreements. Should we light up the street? Should we remove residential requirements? Should we have the hours be the same as the evening businesses on the other side of the tracks?”

Bourne said that while discussion had come up about other details of the matter, he was mostly concerned with the process.

Councilmember Howard Hart said he personally saw some advantages of expanding hours when it comes to the summer season and homelessness.

“When you have emptiness, that’s where the homeless tend to congregate,” Hart said. “When you have a little more traffic, they probably don’t. I’m afraid if we just grandfather in the number of AUPs but expand hours, are we then opening up Pandora’s box with all the other legal issues?”

Damian Orozco, operator of The Tea House, said his business is requesting to offer dinner service and “high-end cocktails.”

“For anyone that has visited or joined me as a guest there, you’ll know it’s a very experiential place. The ambience, service, food, and beverages are not recreated anywhere else in South Orange County, let alone San Juan Capistrano,” Orozco said. “The goal of this is not to become the next Trevor’s at the Tracks or Swallow’s Inn, both of which I patronize and love, or something that will be opening at River Street Marketplace, backing up to the historic district as well.”

Mayor John Taylor recused himself from the vote since he is a homeowner in the Los Rios area, but he did speak about the topic as a resident. A decision on the issue will be another change for local history and could have consequences down the road, Taylor said.

“The Los Rios District has been really pushed these last couple of years with River Street and all the changes with parking lots and so forth,” Taylor said. “I just ask you, enough is enough–with all due respect to my neighbors, that we stop and really rethink this and not make any more changes as have been requested.”

Monica Mukai, who owns other property in the Los Rios Historic District, has also submitted separate AUP applications. Councilmembers said they did not want to pick “winners and losers” when considering the matter, and discussed concerns over the exact number of properties to consider.

Councilmembers also said the effects on foot traffic and parking for the upcoming River Street Marketplace development are currently unknown, but something to keep in mind as well.

The city’s Planning Commission and Cultural Heritage Commission have also reviewed the matter and come to differing recommendations, according to a staff report. The Planning Commission’s recommendations included allowing alcohol to be served until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays from June to September and until 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays from October to May, as well as reinstating the AUP process.

“The CHC is recommending that that the City Council reinstate the AUP process, allow no more than three AUPs to be approved and prohibit alcohol service after 5 p.m. all year long (except for private events),” a staff report said.

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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