By Shawn Raymundo
What was expected to be a non-controversial vote to advance the construction of a Native American cultural site during the latest City Council meeting, instead turned into a heated discussion among councilmembers that ended with a decision to table all development on San Juan Capistrano’s Northwest Open Space.
With Councilmember Derek Reeve opposed, city council on Tuesday, April 16, voted to suspend potential plans to develop on the open space until inconsistencies in the city’s language on land use and zoning descriptions can be ironed out through a public workshop process.
The move places a hold on the city’s plans to build the Native American cultural site called Putuidem Village as well as pauses upcoming negotiations with Red Tail Acquisitions, which has proposed developing a camping and “glamping” facility on the land.
“Poor little Putuidem park,” Mayor Brian Maryott lamented, noting that the cultural site to honor the Acjachemen Native American tribe is being caught in the middle of the debate over the appropriate use of the Northwest Open Space.
At issue are discrepancies in land use descriptions found in the city’s general plan.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, Reeve and Mayor Pro Tem Troy Bourne brought those concerns to the forefront in response to threats of a legal challenge lobbed by a former mayor.
In the weeks since the council voted in favor of negotiating with Red Tail, many San Juan residents – a handful of former councilmembers in particular – have spoken out against the camping and “glamping” proposal. Maryott voted against the negotiations and has also been vocal in his opposition to Red Tail’s plans.
Maryott on Tuesday opined that the council is “splitting hairs” on the issue and was surprised by his colleagues’ hesitance now to move forward with Putuidem Village.
“If we’re going to halt the work then let’s halt the work across the board,” he said. “Because everybody said two weeks ago that they were determined to get that poor little park done, very much in earnest, with a great deal of emotion. And here we are hanging it up on … nuances in the (Municipal) Code and the regulation.”
Bourne said it was “nuances in the code” that resulted in the city having to settle lawsuits and spend millions of dollars in recent years.
When Maryott asked who has a financial stake in the city constructing a passive park, he noted that they can “talk about litigants and potential litigants in the city all night.”
“The facts are we have a former mayor who’s threatening to sue the city over what he perceives as … ‘nuances in the code,’” Bourne responded.
Maryott pointed out that proponents of the Native American site have waited for the last five years to get the project moving.
“All of a sudden we’re throwing this at them,” he said.
Reeve stated that the language in the city’s laws aren’t consistent and need to be cleaned up.
“We still have to at some point come back to this council and clean this up and I’m not clear why that’s such a bad thing,” Reeve said.
“Well, it’s not necessarily done properly and for the right reasons,” Maryott retorted right before trying to introduce the motion to suspend all work on the open space.
Reeve told Maryott that he’s “really out of order.”
“No, I’m not,” Maryott said.
“When you say it’s not done for the right reasons,” Reeve shot back.
“Well, that’s your interpretation that I’m out of order,” Maryott said, defending his comments.
Maryott then introduced the motion to halt the potential development projects on the open space and conduct a public workshop on what the community wants the property to be used as.
Bourne quickly seconded the motion, stating that he agrees with Maryott that if they’re not going to move forward with Putuidem because of ambiguity in the zoning laws then they should also refrain from negotiating with Red Tail.
And while he agreed with Maryott’s proposal, Bourne clarified Reeve’s statement that the mayor was out of order.
“What he’s saying is inappropriate is you’re telling the public how we feel and why we’re doing the things that we’re doing. You’re wrong and you’re not inside of our heads,” Bourne said. “So, you can have your reasons for wanting to move this forward, but to impugn the reasons for doing what we’re doing as being something other than sincere, that’s not OK.”
“If I led you to feel that way, I apologize,” Maryott said while noting that that was their interpretation of his remarks.
On Tuesday, city staff had presented a report on a scaled-down version of Putuidem Village, which had been modified to help keep costs under the city’s $2.118 million budget.
Bids to construct the project opened in August 2018, however, the lowest bid received was for nearly $2.4 million, resulting in the council this past October to reject all the bids. When the council voted last month to negotiate with Red Tail, it also voted to have city staff bring the revised version for review and approval during a subsequent meeting.
According to the city, the anticipated annual cost to maintain Putuidem would range from $60,000 to $80,000. Staff had projected getting the bid out by the summer and awarding the contract in the fall with completion of the project estimated for next spring.
The staff had recommended that the council approve the revised conceptual plan of the community park project and put it out to bid for construction.
Public comments on the project were positive as the few who did speak on the plans urged the council to move forward.
“Let’s please move this forward and let it happen. It’s going to be a beautiful thing for the city,” said Patricia Martz, president of the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, Inc.
Kerry Ferguson, a former councilmember who has lobbied for the cultural park, said it “is far, far past time to recognize this important part of our heritage – the Acjachemen people.”
The zoning issues, which now stand in the way of Putuidem Village, were raised in light of former Councilmember Mark Nielsen’s plans to sue the city if the public isn’t allowed to vote on a potential zone change regarding the open space.
Nielsen has argued that Red Tail’s proposal, which would require a zoning change request, should trigger a public vote under Measure X. A zoning change request from General Plan Open Space to any other designation requires voter approval.
Currently, the Northwest Open Space is classified as “community park” under the General Plan Open Space Land Use designation. There are several classifications under Open Space Land Use, including “open space recreation,” “community park,” “general open space” and “neighborhood park.”
If Red Tail successfully negotiates its plan, it would need to request a classification change from “community park” to “open space recreation,” according to the city. The city has stated that this situation wouldn’t trigger a Measure X vote, because the potential development calls only for changing the land use classification and not the General Plan designation.
As for Putuidem, Reeve asked city staff whether the council needs to approve a classification change for the portion of the site where the cultural project will sit.
“This is a community park, but based on past staff reports it seems there is some quandary putting a facility like this into this land use designation,” he said.
Putuidem would be considered as “passive recreation facilities” use, which is currently not permitted under the “community park” classification.
City Manager Ben Siegel noted that “there is ambiguity” in regards to the descriptions of the land use designations.
“It is something we’ve taken a fresh look at,” he said, adding, “There is certainly ambiguity.”
Ultimately, Siegel said, it will come down to how the council defines Putuidem Village.
Bourne, who has been critical of Nielsen’s recent threat, presented a slideshow highlighting the various descriptions about open space land use in the city’s general plan and zoning laws.
“I think there’s some genuine confusion in the community about what’s supposed to go into the open space,” he said.
Bourne added that everyone in the community he’s spoken to about the open space feels very strongly that their perception of what the open space allows for is correct.
“People feel pretty confident that their use, regardless of which of the uses it is, is the designated use and that they’ve read where it says that,” he said.
Rather than facing a legal challenge down the road, Bourne suggested pumping “the brakes for a second before we start approving uses out there that are questionable as to whether or not they’re legal, and giving these litigious members of our community ammunition to use against the city if they don’t get what they perceive is the best use.”
Bourne also said the city should hold a workshop to “hear from all aspects of the community” and later use those discussions to create a zone specifically designed for the Northwest Open Space.
When the dais turned to Reeve for further comments, he raised the concern that “passive” parks entail annual maintenance costs, further explaining that those are funds that could go toward constructing sports parks.
Reeve then circled back to the zoning issue, stating “I really believe that that we should not vote for this until after, or at least contingent on, some land use change in zoning.”
While noting that proponents of Putuidem Village have been waiting a while to get the project moving, Councilmember John Taylor voiced similar thoughts on the zoning issue and asked Siegel how long the process would take to hold the public forum and then ultimately make the zone change.
Siegel said the scheduling of the public forum could be done soon, but when it comes to initiating a zone change, it would need to go through bureaucratic steps such as going to the planning commission for a hearing and undergo an environmental review. The city could be looking at a time frame of three to six months, he estimated.
After Tuesday’s vote, Martz said the council’s decision not to move forward with Putuidem was “awful,” calling it another broken promise to Native Americans.
“Once again, the Native Americans get dumped on and this is happening again. Breaking promises, breaking treaties,” she said. “It’s gone on for hundreds of years and this is the same thing, they’re breaking a treaty to honor Native Americans. Honor all the things they did for this city.”