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By Alex Groves 

The Ecology Center – a non-profit organization that encourages farming, sustainability and farm to table food – will be expanding its operations into a 27-acre farm property following a unanimous approval by the City Council during its Aug. 21 meeting.

The council approved an agreement allowing the nonprofit to take over operations of the adjacent city-owned Kinoshita farm site, previously managed by South Coast Farms, to continue farming there and eventually turn the site into a community-serving facility described as a “Transformative Community Farm.”

The site could have such amenities as an agricultural public park with a diversified farming plan, a city trail, a culinary farm and institute, special event facility, on-site public parking and a café.

According to a city staff report, the rising cost of water not only led South Coast farms to have difficulty maintaining its continued commercial farming operation, but also led to the farm owing roughly $300,000 in unpaid water costs.

The report notes that the owner of South Coast Farms and the neighboring Ecology Center had been in talks over the last year about how they could preserve the agricultural nature of the site, which “led to a new vision that incorporates crop growing into an expanded operation under the umbrella of a non-profit organization.”

Under the agreement, the ecology center would pay the city $25,000 to operate the site and an additional $8,000 toward the water debt each year, for a total payment of $99,000 within three fiscal years.

The cost of operating the site would increase to $35,000 and the payment for the water debt would increase to $10,000 in subsequent years.

Ecology Center Executive Director Evan Marks told the City Council that the organization was looking into dry farm agriculture for the site, including grapes, olives and walnuts.

He said he envisioned growing crops around an “experiential framework” where people could pick their own crops on site and learn about what’s being grown.

He said he also envisioned the site become a place where future farmers could come and learn the craft of farming.

“Our commitment is to continue to keep that legacy of agriculture happening, such that’s its successful to every one of the residents within our community and it becomes a flagship to the city of San Juan Capistrano as a destination for those near and far,” he said.

Sometime this fall, the council is expected to look at initiating a specific plan amendment that would allow the Ecology Center to go forward with its plan of creating the “Transformative Community Farm” concept and the buildings and structures that would be on site.

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