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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

San Juan Capistrano and the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park are synonymous in the eyes of many with horse riding, a tradition the local equestrian community fears could vanish if action isn’t taken.

Members of the community advocated for keeping the park focused on equestrian activities during a city council meeting held on Tuesday, June 15. During a February meeting, councilmembers had approved a request for proposals for uses at the riding park that would permit considerations of a variety of uses, including non-equestrian activities.

City staff expects to receive use proposals this summer, and is aiming to have an operator selected by this fall after reviewing submissions. Discussion on the park was not on the June 15 agenda, though the San Juan Equestrian Coalition encouraged people to speak about the topic at Tuesday’s meeting, ahead of an operator being selected.

“We, the concerned citizens and equestrians and friends of the horse, would like you to consider our heritage and choose an equestrian vendor,” said Julie Ryan Johnson, a board member of the Equestrian Coalition and a San Juan resident.

Julie Ryan Johnson has been a frequent and vocal advocate for preserving San Juan Capistrano’s equestrian heritage. Photo: Collin Breaux

The park is the regular site for the annual Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, which has been postponed until next year due to lingering COVID-19 concerns.

City staff recommended the extended request for proposals after a previous request for proposals, which was limited to equestrian activities, drew only two responses—one from a small operator in Los Angeles and the other from Blenheim Facility Management (BFM), which currently operates the park. Neither was considered adequate to cover the millions in costs for required water improvement projects at the city’s Eastern Open Space, a part of which the riding park occupies.

The improvements are required under a consent decree reached after Orange County Coastkeeper sued the city and Blenheim Facility Management in 2017 over the water quality. The city owns the park property after purchasing it in 2010.

Jim Carter, founder of American Horse Products, said the town caters to outside people through equestrian activities.

“We are the only ones that I know of in Orange County that have a reputation for having horses and facilities for horses, and great excitement for the community,” Carter said.

Jessica DiCostanzo, another Equestrian Coalition board member and longtime equestrian, said she grew up going to the riding park and pleaded with city officials to keep the riding park for horse riders.

“If you’ve ever been through town and see someone riding on their horse, and they stop and let kids pet their horse, there’s nothing more heartfelt than that,” DiCostanzo said. “I have families that ask me all the time, ‘Hey, I see this big park over off the Ortega. What’s the scoop there?’ You can go. You can go anytime. It just makes their day to know they can watch people jump really big jumps or watch the rodeo.”

Mayor Pro Tem Derek Reeve said having such civil dialogue is “critically important” and that city officials will not allow the town’s equestrian heritage and culture to disappear.

“This city council is 100% committed to the equestrian community here in San Juan Capistrano,” Reeve said. “We do have challenges, obviously. We have a multitude of variables that you know we have to consider. We did have activists that invited trial lawyers into the town, with the intention of kicking out Blenheim.”

The council voted in February, 3-1, to approve the request for proposals. Mayor John Taylor and Councilmembers Sergio Farias and Troy Bourne voted yes. Councilmember Howard Hart voted no. Reeve was not at the February meeting.

Any uses of the park are subject to city and Rancho Mission Viejo regulations, under an agreement the city previously reached with Rancho Mission Viejo.

A video celebrating San Juan’s equestrian community and encouraging the culture stay intact was played at the June 15 meeting. Members of the equestrian community are generally concerned the equestrian lifestyle could gradually vanish due to environmental regulations, including those governing CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations).

In other meeting news, the June 15 meeting was the first one in a while that drew a large crowd in the council chambers and where people did not have to wear masks. Pandemic restrictions, including for capacity limits and mask requirements for fully vaccinated people, were lifted Tuesday.

“It’s great to see you,” Taylor said. “It’s been way too long. We’ve had empty chambers for 15 months.”

The June 15 city council meeting was the first one in a while that drew a large crowd in the council chambers and where people did not have tp wear masks. Photo: Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.

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