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By Brian Park
Could this be the end of San Juan Capistrano’s dinosaur saga?
For the second time in six months, the city’s Planning Commission denied Zoomars Petting Zoo’s attempt to keep Juan, the controversial apatosaurus replica, on its property in the Los Rios Historic District.
In a 4-2 vote, the commission determined that the 13-foot-tall, 40-foot-long structure was inconsistent with the 236-year history of the area, which is the state’s oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Zoomars owner Carolyn Franks sought an amendment to her conditional use permit that would have potentially allowed her to keep the structure, but the commission, at the recommendation of city staff, found it did not comply with a provision of the Los Rios Specific Plan, which sets guidelines for allowable uses in the area.
In June, at the behest of some residents who complained the dinosaur created a “mockery” of the neighborhood’s history, the city issued Franks a notice to remove the structure, just a day after she had it installed.
The Planning Commission denied Franks’ appeal to keep the dinosaur in August, but in November, the Cultural Heritage Commission narrowly voted 2-1, with commissioners Lorie Porter and Charles Gildea absent, to support Franks’ proposed revisions to her conditional use permit.
Although the Cultural Heritage Commission’s vote marked the city’s first show of support for the dinosaur, both Porter and Gildea expressed their disapproval of the structure and were on hand, as citizens, to address the Planning Commission.
“It’s a commercial venture that’s taking place with the dinosaur,” Porter said. “That kind of surpasses what the historic area is all about.”
Gildea added that a dinosaur did not fit into the Los Rios District’s history.
“I have really tried to think about the dinosaur issue here and I cannot find how it really relates to what I feel the nature of the historic Los Rios District should be,” Gildea said. “I just think it’s an inappropriate structure and it’s changing the composition of the zoo itself.”
Chairman Robert Williams echoed their statements and further suggested the city look into Zoomars’ other ventures, which he believed were also inconsistent with the neighborhood’s history.
“I have a hard time with Zoomars in general because I think it’s slowly getting away from us and it’s turning into a mini-amusement park,” Williams said. “We need to get our hands on this, and this dinosaur has brought it to light.”
Although Zoomars falls under the provisions of the Los Rios Specific Plan, the zoo itself is not part of the National Historic Register’s designated boundaries. However, Hidden House Café, an adjoining property on the corner of Los Rios Street and River Street, which is also owned by Franks, is within those boundaries. City staff said the dinosaur was observable from a small vantage point near the intersection, which could threaten the neighborhood’s place on the federal list.
Commissioners Jeff Parkhurst and Tim Neely voted against denial and both expressed their desire to see the dinosaur remain on the property, as long as it was properly screened from view from Los Rios Street.
“I think this is a debate and opposition to a concept and not the structure itself. What if this was a 13-foot-tall cowboy on a horse? Would there be this opposition?” Parkhurst said. “I just ask myself if this were approved, how would it change the historic legacy of this district, and I really don’t think it will, if it’s properly done.”
Neely said the zoo’s other attractions concerned him more than the dinosaur.
“There’ve been a number of allusions and testimony that this is tantamount to an amusement park. It’s all a slippery slope and I suppose it can reach those proportions, but to me, an amusement park has active rides and is more aggressive,” Neely said. “I think the dinosaur in and of itself doesn’t go that far.”
Despite voting to deny Franks’ appeal, commissioners Roy Nunn and Gene Ratcliffe also indicated with proper screening, the dinosaur could potentially exist. “That would be the only way,” Ratcliffe said.
“I don’t want to shut the door on this. Maybe if it was in the back, maybe there’s something that can be worked out,” Nunn added. “I can admonish you to work something out, but I cannot support what we’re looking at now.”
After the meeting, Franks said she was confused by the commission’s decision because the additional structures proposed in her modified permit, including shade structures and a rock wall, could adequately hide the dinosaur from view.
“We’ve already offered to screen it. We’re willing to compromise on this,” Franks said. “We were careful to meet all the requirements requested at the first planning hearing so that’s why I’m a little surprised by the outcome.”
In a separate motion, the commission voted unanimously to ask Franks and city staff to bring more detailed information regarding the additional structures to its February meeting.
Franks said she would speak with city staff about the decision before moving forward with a possible appeal to the City Council.
Photo: The 13-foot-tall, 40-foot-long apatosaurus replica at Zoomars Petting Zoo has been at the center of debate since it was installed in June. Photo by Brian Park