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By Allison Jarrell

The San Juan Capistrano City Council voted unanimously on Nov. 7 to pursue amending the city’s General Plan and zoning map/development code in order to correct inconsistencies and ambiguities between the city’s guiding documents, including the Historic Town Center Master Plan (HTCMP).

The Council initially discussed the possibility of repealing the HTCMP on Oct. 17, when Councilman Derek Reeve brought the idea forward. Reeve said that since the plan’s adoption in 2012, it’s been an “ongoing source of confusion and conflict.”

“First and foremost, it was never actually enacted through the proper legal process, thereby rendering it merely an advisory document,” Reeve said. “Nonetheless, due to its numerous inconsistencies with the General Plan Land Use Element and the adopted Form Based Code standards, its existence continues to create challenges for applicants and staff as they process development applications in the downtown. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it includes provisions that are broadly opposed by residents, such as encouraging housing development in the downtown. As long as the HTCMP exists, it will invariably lead to dispute and litigation, and will have the effect of delaying or preventing any meaningful investment in downtown.”

After voting in October to move forward with studying a potential repeal of the plan, the Council was presented with four options on Nov. 7—take no action, immediately repeal the HTCMP, initiate a process to repeal the HTCMP only (not including the Form Based Code (FBC)), or direct staff to initiate a combined General Plan amendment and zoning map/development code amendment to correct the inconsistencies and ambiguities of the HTCMP, FBC, zoning map and General Plan.

The latter option, which was staff’s recommendation, was chosen unanimously by the Council. Staff said it will provide a long-term solution to the inconsistencies in the city’s guiding documents.

Two of the three former Councilmen who initially approved the plan back in 2012—Larry Kramer and Sam Allevato—wrote to the Council in October supporting the repeal of the document. Kramer wrote that the plan is “now being used selectively as a hammer.” The HTCMP is currently at the center of two lawsuits.

“To witness the HTCMP being used as a catalyst to sue the City of SJC in the Urban Village case using the argument that the HTCMP was not a valid governing document and the General Plan should have been followed, then in the Hotel Capistrano case the HTCMP again being used as a catalyst to sue the City of SJC but with the exact opposite argument that the HTCMP carries equal power to the General Plan, is truly stunning and disingenuous at best, and is exactly on point as to why the HTCMP needs to be repealed,” Allevato wrote in his letter.

Other residents involved in the creation of the HTCMP asked for a more cautious approach.

Former Councilwoman Laura Freese noted in a letter that the HTCMP was a four-year project that involved hundreds of hours of work and collaboration of downtown stakeholders, business owners and residents.

“Is it flawed? Yes, it is. Therefore, it needs to be amended,” Freese wrote. “But it should not be repealed.”

Longtime resident and historian Jan Siegel also asked that the city consider amending rather than repealing.

“This plan was the result of many hours of staff resources and public comments. It also has cost the city over half a million dollars,” Siegel wrote. “To toss it away would be unfair to the citizens of San Juan Capistrano.”

With the Council’s direction to study amendments rather than repeal, staff provided a tentative timeline for implementing the changes to the city’s documents. In the coming months, staff will create a detailed report on the specific inconsistencies among the documents and the issues that require policy direction.

In the spring/summer of next year, staff will analyze the documents based on Council direction and CEQA review. By fall 2018, the city’s Planning Commission could hold hearings on the proposed General Plan and Zoning Map/Development Code amendments. And in winter 2019, staff anticipates bringing the amendments and the Planning Commission’s recommendation before the City Council for final consideration.

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