By Shawn Raymundo
That was the response a handful of audience members gave to Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Chairperson Teresa Romero when she asked the city’s officials, “Do you know how many spaces are dedicated to the Acjachemen people in San Juan Capistrano?”
“Zero,” she repeated, prompting applause from many of the nearly 200 community members who came out on Wednesday, June 5, to attend the first of a pair of public workshops to discuss the best use for the city’s Northwest Open Space.
The city is holding the workshops, the second of which is scheduled for June 24, in an effort to address ambiguous language on land-use designations, iron out inconsistencies in the municipal code and gather community feedback on how to use the open space.
Until the zoning language is cleaned up, all potential development on the open space is put on pause; that includes the city’s plan to construct the Native American cultural site called Putuidem Village.
Plans to build Putuidem Village have been in the works over the past few years, but setbacks including funding – and now zoning inconsistencies – have stood in its path.
Mayor Brian Maryott and Mayor Pro Tem Troy Bourne led Wednesday’s seminar, answering questions from audience members and addressing concerns of those who are leery of developing on San Juan’s Northwest Open Space.
Romero asked Maryott and Bourne what’s to stop the council from again delaying or “overturning” the project once the city’s code has been adjusted.
“Nothing has been overturned; it’s been paused,” Maryott said.
Bourne also emphasized that the point of the workshops is to protect the city from any lawsuits.
“We’re trying to put your park on sound legal footing,” Bourne said.
The decision to suspend the project, as well as pause negotiations with Red Tail Acquisitions, which has proposed developing a camping and “glamping” facility on the open space, came from the city council in a 4-1 vote, with Councilmember Derek Reeve opposed, during its April 16 meeting.
Last year, the city accepted bids for construction, but because the proposals exceeded the city’s available funding, the bids were rejected, resulting in the project needing to be revised.
During the late April council meeting, city staff recommended reopening the bid process as it had put together a scaled-down version, with costs being kept under the city’s $2.12 million budget for the project.
That same meeting, Bourne brought forth the problem with the city’s code in response to threats of a legal challenge from a former councilmember, who has opposed the “glamping” facility proposal.
“I don’t think it’s a black and white issue; I think it’s a gray issue. That’s part of the reason why we’re trying to slow this down and have a richer conversation,” Bourne said, adding, “The laws are a jumbled mess of spaghetti, and there was plenty of legal liability if someone didn’t agree with exactly what we’re doing and how we were doing it. So what we said is … ‘Let’s pause, get the laws straight so when we do it, it’s legally defendable and done in the right way.’ ”
Assistant City Manager Charlie View explained to the audience there are some “challenges” related to the proposed uses of both the Putuidem Village project and “glamping” proposal when it comes to the Open Space’s “community park” designation.
Currently, the Northwest Open Space is classified as a “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.”
“The policy level is not as prescriptive, so you can make some more interpretive looks at the general plan,” View said.
According to View, “community park” allows for accessory uses such as soccer fields, picnic areas and museums. Putuidem Village would fit in the current designation; however, the project could possibly also be considered a passive recreational facility or an educational center, which is not allowed under “community park.”
The zoning issue stems from the council’s previous 4-1 vote on March 5 to go into exclusive negotiations with Red Tail. Maryott voted against the negotiations and has maintained support for Putuidem Village.
In the aftermath of that vote, some former city officials have come out against the proposed “glamping” site. One of the most vocal opponents has been Mark Nielsen, who served on the council from 2006 to 2010 and previously sat on the city’s Open Space committee as chairman.
According to the city, Red Tail’s plans would require a land-use designation change from “community park” to “open space” recreation.” Citing Measure X, which is triggered when there’s a zoning change request from General Plan Open Space to any other designation, Nielsen has advocated the city holding a public vote.
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.
Nielsen has said he would sue the city if the council moved forward with Red Tail without giving the public a chance to vote on the zoning change.
One suggestion that was proposed during the workshop was to have the city give the public ideas on what to do with the open space and let them vote.
“It could end up there,” Maryott said.
The next workshop will be held on June 24 at the Community Center at 5:30 p.m.
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.