By Shawn Raymundo
City council voted on Tuesday, Sept. 17, to approve a revised design concept for the Putuidem Village Park Project, picking up with where the city left off in the spring, when all proposed plans to develop on the Northwest Open Space were tabled.
The Putuidem project, the city’s longstanding plans to construct a cultural venue honoring the Native American Acjachemen tribe, was delayed back in mid-April amid concerns over inconsistent language found in the municipal code relating to open space land use and zoning.
“I’m going to make a motion . . . that we immediately proceed with the final design of Putuidem Village to kind of get back to where we were so that can move forward,” Mayor Pro Tem Troy Bourne said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Councilmembers voted unanimously in favor of Bourne’s motion, allowing city staff to prepare documents for contractors to eventually bid on the project. Those bid documents are likely to come before the council for approval in November, setting up a potential groundbreaking for early 2020.
“We are very happy and grateful that the City Council approved the redesigned Putuidem Village Cultural Park in the Northwest Open Space,” Rebecca Robles, an Acjachemen tribal member who has been vocal in her opposition to the project’s delay, told The Capistrano Dispatch in an email on Wednesday, Sept. 18.
“We look forward to enjoying this space and sharing our dynamic Acjachemen history and culture with the community,” Robles continued in the email. “Thank you to all the people who supported and worked to achieve this park.”
The council’s unanimous vote Tuesday comes days after the results of a city-sanctioned survey were released, which found that the majority of respondents in the community favor the construction of Putuidem and want to keep San Juan Capistrano’s Northwest Open Space as is.
According to the results, 63.64% of the nearly 500 people who took the survey chose “Natural Open Space” as a feature or amenity they want to see on the open space, and 55% of those same respondents also chose the “ ‘Putuidem Village’ Community Park Project.”
Those survey results were presented to the council during Tuesday’s meeting.
Back in June, the city hosted a pair of public workshops to educate San Juan residents about the ambiguous language related to open space in the city’s code.
City officials have pointed out that the city’s various definitions pertaining to open space often conflict with each other. In Putuidem’s case, the project would be considered a “community park,” which allows for soccer fields, picnic areas and museums.
However, questions have been raised about the Putuidem Village possibly being considered a passive recreational facility or an educational center, which is not permitted under the “community park” designation.
While the Northwest Open Space falls under the umbrella of General Open Space Land Use, it is currently classified as “community park.” Other classifications under Open Space Land Use, include “open space recreation,” “general open space” and “neighborhood park.”
In order to iron out those discrepancies, the city has sought the public’s feedback on what to do with the land 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.
Bourne, who had brought forth the issue regarding the inconsistent language, included another direction in his motion Tuesday to have the city, within six months, correct the zoning on the property where Putuidem will sit, so that it’s in compliance with the local zoning laws.
During the April 16 meeting, city staff had presented a report on the modified version of Putuidem Village, which had been scaled down to help keep costs under the city’s $2.118 million budget.
Bids to construct the project opened in August 2018; however, the lowest bid received was for nearly $2.4 million, resulting in the council last October rejecting all of the bids.
When the council voted in March to negotiate with Red Tail Acquisitions, which has proposed developing a campground on the Northwest Open Space, it also voted to have city staff bring the revised Putuidem for review and approval during a subsequent meeting.
According to the city, the anticipated annual cost to maintain Putuidem would range from $60,000 to $80,000. Staff had projected getting the bid out by the summer and awarding the contract in the fall, with completion of the project estimated for next spring.
The city’s efforts to gather feedback and amend the municipal code’s language stemmed from the council’s decision to enter into exclusive negotiations with Red Tail. Those plans have also been paused as a result of the April meeting.
The Red Tail decision 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.
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.
In addition to Red Tail’s plans, the city received proposals from two other developers for projects on the Northwest Open Space. Red Tail and local resident Jim Adam presented their plans to the council in March, while the third withdrew its proposal before the meeting.
Bourne’s motion included one last direction for city staff to also reach out to those developers and ask if they’d like to “revise their plans to be more consistent with what we heard from the community from the workshops and the survey.”
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.