The Planning Commission votes 2-1 against Spieker Development’s Laguna Glen project
By Brian Park
A developer proposing to build a retirement community on one of San Juan Capistrano’s last remaining agricultural properties will have to seek approval from the City Council without the Planning Commission’s favor.
In front of a packed audience at City Hall Tuesday night, the commission voted 2-1 to reject an environmental impact report for Spieker Senior Development’s Laguna Glen project. Although the study found that the project would have little to no impact on the surrounding area, Commissioners Sheldon Cohen and Roy Nunn didn’t buy it.
Commissioner Ian Gardiner supported the project. Commissioner Tim Neely, who served on an ad hoc committee with Nunn to work with the developer on design, was absent. Commissioner Evan Chaffee recused himself because of his residence nearby the proposed project site.
Spieker proposes to build a 407-unit senior community on a 35-acre property, located at 32382 Del Obispo Street, currently serving as the distribution site for Armstrong Garden Center. The project also includes a health care center with 39 assisted care units, 21 memory-support care units and 41 nursing-care rooms. Per a development agreement, Spieker would also build a public aquatic center, including a junior Olympic pool, toddler pool, a shower and locker facility and a small fitness center.
The commission also voted 2-1 to recommend against rezoning the land, which is currently designed for agricultural business. The land is owned by the Vermeulen family, whose farming history in San Juan Capistrano spans 65 years.
Critics of the project spoke out against the zoning change, asking the commission to preserve the area’s farming heritage and charm. Developer Troy Bourne and former mayor Phil Schwartze, who is representing the Vermeulens, said the land was no longer viable for agricultural use.
Bourne, who displayed aerial photos showing how surrounding farm land had dramatically changed to residential, said it wouldn’t be fair to deny the Vermeulens, who he said had fought longer and harder for San Juan Capistrano’s farming heritage.
“It’s reasonable to say no family has done more,” Bourne said.
Schwartze said the Vermeulens had also considered their land for commercial, residential and industrial development but ultimately chose to work with Spieker because they felt a retirement community had the lowest impact on nearby schools and public facilities.
Nunn said San Juan Capistrano was no longer a village but a small town, but he and Cohen both said the commission had to uphold the city’s General Plan, which aims to preserve a rural character. Cohen criticized the density of the project. He also questioned the push to develop while the state was in the midst of an historic drought.
“I’m concerned about anything at this point in time with the drought,” Cohen said. “I think we all have to open our eyes to what lies ahead. I’m not suggesting a moratorium on building.
City staff noted that once the community had reached 75 percent occupancy, they would reassess its impact on traffic and water.
State law requires proposed retirement communities offering medical services to determine demand before moving forward with development. Bourne said within the first 90 days of advertising for the project, Spieker had received 250 refundable deposits to secure a place at Laguna Glen.
Some of those potential residents came dressed in blue T-shirts that read “I Heart SJC.” They were met by critics wearing yellow T-shirts and holding banners against the project.
The discussion was continued from last Tuesday because of problems with the chambers’ audio/visual system. The meeting began around 20 minutes behind schedule after the Orange County Fire Authority said the chamber was filled beyond capacity. Many were ushered to the Police Services office nearby to watch the meeting, while others stood within earshot of the chamber, in the lobby and front entrance.