Equestrians and married couple Robert and Hillary Ridland will continue managing operations at the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park for another 20 years.
A long-term lease with the Ridlands was approved by the San Juan Capistrano City Council on Tuesday, June 20, by a 3-1 vote. Mayor Howard Hart and Councilmembers John Taylor and John Campbell voted yes.
Mayor Pro Tem Sergio Farias voted no, while Councilmember Troy Bourne was not at Tuesday’s meeting.
The Ridlands are the current operators and have been negotiating terms of the lease since being selected to do so in December 2021.
The agreement requires improvements be made on the property regarding water quality as it pertains to what’s called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which applies to equestrian activities—a frequent sight at the Riding Park.
“In 2017, an organization called Orange County Coastkeeper filed a lawsuit against the city and Blenheim Facilities Management alleging some water quality violations at the Riding Park property,” Assistant City Manager Matisse Reischl said. “To resolve that litigation, a consent decree was entered into by the three parties.”
A “key component” of that consent decree is the completion of CAFO improvements.
“In addition to the water quality improvements, The Ridland Group would also install new landscaping and monument signage along the perimeter of the property at Ortega Highway and Avenida La Pata, complete a trail connection that is a requirement of the purchase and sale agreement when the city purchased the property from Rancho Mission Viejo, and also install modular restroom improvements on the property,” Reischl said.
The Ridland Group must pay the city $400,000 annually, subject to a one-time, six-month abatement period while the CAFO improvements are made, because equestrian events will be suspended until construction is complete.
The lease goes into effect on July 1.
The Riding Park is host to numerous horse shows, including the Longines Fédération Équestre Internationale Nations Jumping Cup this past April and the upcoming annual Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, as well as the country musical festival MissionFest. The area is also open to the general public if people want to ride horses or just spend time outdoors.
“The lease calls for a minimum number of horse shows that would be both English and Western, and 10 community events annually,” Reischl said. “The Ridland Group would be responsible for all costs associated with the property, including utilities, repairs, and maintenance.”
Councilmember John Taylor said it is great to execute the lease.
“We’ve been working on it for a long time,” Taylor said. “If anybody went out to the Nations Cup—it was my first time to see that—it was pretty phenomenal. A lot of it’s open to the public. Take your kids or grandkids out there and watch one of these events. They’re just incredible.”
Having a long-term lease is important, because the question comes up of how operators can invest in necessary improvements with just a two- or five-year lease.
Farias said he voted against the lease, because he would not personally do business with the Ridlands and negotiating the lease took time away from city staff.
“As a councilmember, I was frustrated, kind of, by the process,” Farias said. “I worry that we’ll have some of what went on in the past happen again. There’s a lot of Coastkeepers out there.”
Farias said he hopes the decision isn’t something the city ends up regretting.
Councilmember John Campbell said he is “thrilled” to move forward with the lease.
“There’s a continuity that’s required, a long-term commitment to The Ridland Group,” Campbell said. “They did demonstrate magnificently at the Nations Cup the potential of the Riding Park. The future is wide open to us as a community to take advantage of the services and things it will provide.”
Campbell said he recognized and shared some of Farias’ concerns and thanked city staff.
“I am glad that we’re past it, because there will be time for staff to do something else,” Campbell said. “We’ve been doing this for an awfully long time.”
Mayor Howard Hart congratulated the Ridlands and also thanked staff.
“I’ve got to think this is a good deal for you,” Hart said to Robert and Hillary Ridland, who were in the audience.
Hart said the lease also protects the property from any state efforts to negate open space zoning laws. He has previously raised concerns over the state overriding municipalities when it comes to housing placement.
“That’s a big deal,” Hart said. “We’re protecting a valuable resource for our community. It helps solidify what is, in many ways, the heart of our equestrian community in San Juan Capistrano and the future of our equestrian community.”
The city initially put out a request for proposal for uses of the Riding Park in 2021. Local developer Dan Almquist withdrew the only other proposal on the table in December of that year.