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By Shawn Raymundo
A majority of the community would prefer to see San Juan Capistrano’s Northwest Open Space remain as is—natural open space and hiking trails—according to a city-commissioned survey, the results of which were made public on Wednesday, Sept.11.
Close to 64% of the nearly 500 individuals who had participated in the online survey the city posted to its website in August said a feature or amenity they want to see on the open space is “natural open space.”
Back in June, the city hosted a pair of public workshops to educate San Juan residents about the discrepancies and ambiguous language related to open-space use contained in the municipal code.
In order to iron out those inconsistencies, the city also sought the public’s feedback on what to do with the Northwest Open Space during the forums. Last month, the city also launched the online survey to get supplemental input that is expected to be used as the basis for amendments to the local code.
The feedback from the workshops and the results of the survey are to be presented to the city council during its next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 17. The city notes that 382 of the 496 participants indicated they were residents of San Juan.
The first question in the survey asks, “What features and/or amenities would you like to see at the Northwest Open Space?” Listed were several options, of which respondents could choose as many as they wanted.
Such options included natural open space, picnic areas, camping, amphitheater, live entertainment, athletic fields, community gardens, and eating and drinking establishments, to name a few.
According to the results, all but one of the 496 participants responded to the first question, with 63.64% of them selecting Natural Open Space and 64.65% of them choosing “Walking and/or natural trails.”
More than 55% of those same respondents selected the “ ‘Putuidem Village’ Community Park Project,” the city’s longstanding plans to construct a cultural venue honoring the Native American Acjachemen tribe on a portion of the Northwest Open Space.
Councilmembers in April tabled those plans, as well as paused negotiations with a developer proposing to implement a camping and glamping site on the Northwest Open Space until the municipal code gets straightened out.
An option for “Camping” in the survey received support from 20.4% of those surveyed. “Athletic fields” and “Athletic facilities” were the least-selected amenities, as only 9.49% and 7.27% of respondents, respectively, chose those options.
To gauge the community’s support for the Putuidem project, which is estimated to cost $2 million to construct, the survey also asked whether it should be built by the city, to which 58.54% of 492 respondents agreed or strongly agreed with.
A little more than 16% said they neither agreed nor disagreed with the city being responsible for its construction, while 25.41% said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the city being on the hook for the project.
When participants were asked whether they would support the $2 million project if all or a significant portion of it were paid for by a private individual or group, 27.66% said they neither agreed nor disagreed with such a proposition.
Just shy of 40% agreed or strongly agreed with that notion, while the remaining 32.58% disagreed or strongly disagreed. More than 47% percent of the participants said they would be opposed to the city using the Northwest Open Space to generate revenue to support its priorities.
Other questions in the survey included “How often do you visit the Norwest Open Space?” and “What is the primary purpose of your visit?” Among those surveyed, 39.55%, said they visit the site three times a year or less while 14.55% said they had never been there.
The survey also found that the primary purpose among those who visit the Northwest Open Space was for hiking, as about 53% of the 454 people who responded to that question selected “hiking trails.”
The city’s efforts to gather feedback and amend the municipal code’s language on open space stems from the city council’s decision in early March to enter into exclusive negotiations with Red Tail Acquisitions, a developer proposing to install a campground on the Northwest Open Space.
That 4-1 vote, with Mayor Brian Maryott dissenting, sparked criticism from the community and former city officials, including former San Juan Mayor Mark Nielsen, who believes the city is required to hold a Measure X vote if it ever moves forward with Red Tail.
Under Measure X, the city is required to hold a public vote when there’s a zone change request from General Plan Open Space to any other designation. 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.”
Red Tail’s proposal intends to request a classification change from “community park” to “open space recreation,” according to the city. The city has stated that the 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 disputes the city’s reasoning and has threatened to take legal action if the city ever approves Red Tail’s plans without first giving San Juan’s voters a say in the matter.
The potential litigation prompted Mayor Pro Tem Troy Bourne to bring forth concerns over the zoning inconsistencies during the council’s April 16 meeting—when the body was expected to advance the Putuidem Village plans.
After Bourne raised those issues to the council, it voted, 4-1, with Councilmember Derek Reeve opposed, to table all potential development on the Northwest Open Space. And during the council’s Aug. 20 meeting, members of South County’s tribal community gathered for a prayer rally, demonstrating against the city for deferring Putuidem.
Bourne, who, during the June workshops, had taken the brunt of the criticism from the Native American community over the Putuidem Project’s delay, has maintained that the purpose of its suspension was to put it on “sound legal footing” and protect the city from another lawsuit.
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.