By Shawn Raymundo
To clean up inconsistencies and ambiguous language regarding the use of open space in San Juan’s municipal code, the city on Monday, June 24, held a second public workshop, gathering input from the community on how the Northwest Open Space should be used.
While the latest gathering at the San Juan Capistrano Community Center is expected to be the last of the workshop series, city officials noted Monday that much more work will need to be done before the city’s General Plan and zoning codes are amended.
“First, staff would seek policy direction from the city council on the uses that the council would like to see, and then staff would provide some options and then maybe a recommendation for the appropriate mechanism to implement that,” City Manager Ben Siegel told the crowd, which wasn’t quite as big as the previous turnout at the first June 5 workshop.
“Whether that be a General Plan amendment or a specific plan, there are options available, but it really starts with the policy direction,” Siegel said, completing his thought.
Mayor Brian Maryott, who ran both workshops alongside Mayor Pro Tem Troy Bourne, expounded on Siegel’s statement, explaining that the process to update the city’s language on open space will be thorough. That process, he continued, would include public hearings and “a lot of opportunity for input.”
“So it’ll be a lot of work and public process,” Maryott said.
The mayor also pointed out that the council and staff, while moving forward, will need to be mindful of Measure X—the city’s law requiring requests to rezone land from General Open Space to any other designation to be put on an election ballot.
A handful of those who asked the mayoral committee questions on Monday brought up Measure X, which has been the linchpin of the debate over the Northwest Open Space. Former Councilmember Mark Nielsen has stated he would sue the city if it didn’t hold a public vote over a developer’s proposal to put in a camping and “glamping” facility on the land.
In early March, the council voted, 4-1, with Maryott dissenting, to hold talks with Red Tail Acquisitions. The developer’s plans, if the city were to move forward with the proposal, would require a request to change the land use classification from “community park” to “open space recreation,” both of which fall under the umbrella of General Open Space Land Use.
The city has stated Measure X wouldn’t be triggered in Red Tail’s case, because the land would remain General Open Space, with the request asking only to change the land use classification and not the General Plan designation.
In the aftermath of the council’s decision to go into exclusive negotiations with Red Tail, several former city officials, including Nielsen,, have come out against the proposed glamping site.
On April 16, councilmembers were expected to advance the construction of Putuidem Village, a cultural site intended to honor the Acjachemen tribe on a portion of the Northwest Open Space. Following the city staff’s presentation on the Putuidem project that night, Bourne brought to light the discrepancies in the city’s language as a response to Nielsen’s legal challenge.
Bourne’s concerns prompted the council to pause all development on the Northwest Open Space until the laws can be fixed. Staff was also directed to schedule the workshops to hear from the public.
City officials have pointed out that the city’s various definitions pertaining to open space often conflict with each other. In Putuidem’s case, the project would be considered a “community park,” which allows for soccer fields, picnic areas and museums.
However, questions have been raised about the Putuidem Village possibly being considered a passive recreational facility or an educational center, which is not permitted under the “community park” designation.
Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Chairperson Teresa Romero, who had given an impassioned statement about the lack of a site dedicated to the Acjachemen people at the June 5 workshop, asked Maryott and Bourne what their takeaway was from the last meeting.
“For me, I saw very widespread support for the Putuidem Park, and my sense was there wasn’t great support for commercial operation of any kind,” Maryott said.
As for Bourne, he expressed disappointment from the last meeting, partially because a lot of time was spent discussing the importance of the Acjachemen cultural center, rather than on collecting ideas of how to utilize the space surrounding the planned Putuidem Village.
Bourne said he and Maryott have already publicly stated their support for the construction of Putuidem Village, noting that “to me, that was a forgone conclusion.” At the previous workshop, the mayor pro tem stated he wants Putuidem Village to be on “sound legal footing.”
“It really felt really, really difficult to say, ‘OK what else?’ It felt like we couldn’t get feedback,” he said, adding: “I would like to continue to hear some thoughts of what else . . . what else do you want to see out there?”
When asked whether the city had a timeline of when it intends to update the laws and potentially break ground on Putuidem, Siegel said city staff will return to council in August with a summary of the feedback.
The council could, at that point, authorize staff to put the project out to bid, “so in a three- to six-month timeframe, provided that we receive direction on the zoning issues we discussed this evening,” Siegel said.
Editor’s Note: An abridged version of this story was published in the June 28 edition of The Capistrano Dispatch.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.