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By Shawn Raymundo

A handful of former city officials continue to voice their opposition to the San Juan Capistrano City Council’s recent decision to negotiate with the developer of a proposed camping and “glamping” site on San Juan Capistrano’s Northwest Open Space.

One of those officials, former councilmember Mark Nielsen, has proposed the idea of taking legal action against the city if it doesn’t allow the public to vote on a potential zone change should the city council move forward with Red Tail Acquisitions.

In early March, the city council voted, 4-1, in favor of going into exclusive negotiations with Red Tail Acquisitions, which has proposed implementing a “traditional camping and ‘glamping’ destination” on part of the site.

Nielsen said he’s been working to “inform the public that this is not an appropriate use of the Northwest Open Space without a vote of the people.”

While actively speaking out against the plans, Nielsen has pushed for a public vote under Measure X, which is triggered when there’s a zoning change request from General Plan Open Space to any other designation.

Currently, the Northwest Open Space is classified as “community park” under the General Plan Open Space Land Use designation. There are several classifications under Open Space Land Use, including “open space recreation,” “community park,” “general open space” and “neighborhood park.”

If Red Tail successfully negotiates its plan, it would need to request a classification change from “community park” to “open space recreation,” according to the city. The city has stated that this 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 explained that should the city make a formal decision to proceed with Red Tail without a public vote, he would simultaneously organize a referendum to overturn the council and file a lawsuit, possibly compelling the city to initiate a Measure X vote.

According to the city, voters can challenge legislation approved by the council through a referendum, or petition process, and must be completed within 30 days of the council’s approval.

Nielsen explained that in order to protect the open space from any initial stage of development, he intends to conduct both actions simultaneously because of the time restraints associated with each method.

Rather than submitting a referendum first and seeing how it plays out before filing a lawsuit, Nielsen said the city could have already begun moving forward, allowing the beginning stages of construction.

“If you wait a long period of time, it can create a problem,” he said. “If the city is moving forward . . .  as an example, if they’re moving aggressively forward and allow someone to start construction—anything like that—you don’t want to be in a position for them to do so because you haven’t instituted proper safeguards.”

Mayor Pro Tem Troy Bourne, who introduced the motion during the March 5 council meeting to negotiate with Red Tail, said the threat of a lawsuit over the issue “saddens” him, as he campaigned on reducing the city’s legal expenses and exposure to litigation.

“Mark knows that we have not voted to take any action on the Northwest Open Space. We’re simply trying to get as much information as we can about our options so that we can make an informed decision later this year,” Bourne said in an email. “When we have that information, it will be presented to the public, and I hope they will be very engaged in the decision process. They certainly have more of a vested interest in the outcome than Mark’s lawyers.”

In response to Nielsen’s comments about pursuing legal action, Assistant City Manager Jacob Green said in an email, “The City and legal counsel are still reviewing and analyzing all input received from the public during the Council meeting on March 5.”

Nielsen argues that even though this negotiation period is only meant to allow the council to explore the plans in greater detail and no formal decision has been made, the idea of allowing negotiations in the first place means the council is already considering developing the land.

“If they basically recognize that the land should be preserved as open space, that the intention was to keep that as open space, then there’s no purpose in investigating (and saying), ‘Well, let’s look at what would happen if we did that,’ ” he said.

During San Juan’s weekly Coffee Chat at Hennessy’s Tavern on Friday, March 29, much of the conversation gravitated toward the potential use of the open space. Former councilmembers Kerry Ferguson, Laura Freese, Tom Hribar and Nielsen each had turns expressing their concerns with the potential development.

Freese said it’s important for newer residents of the city to understand why the Northwest Open Space is a significant piece of land for the rest of the community.

“It’s important that people know that it was not done by the seat of our pants, and was instead well thought out and voted on,” Freese told The Capistrano Dispatch. “People have to know how important things like open space are to the people of SJC, that they would vote to tax themselves.”

The open space was purchased in the early 1990s through the voter-approved Measure D Open Space Bond measure. The principal amount of the bond debt was $21 million, which was paid off in August 2017.

According to the city, the purpose of the bond was “to acquire lands for park, agriculture, open space, and related uses, in order to save these lands from potential residential and commercial development and to develop youth, senior and other community facilities.”

When asked whether she would support a legal challenge over the Measure X vote, Freese said that’s where she would draw the line.

“I am an anti-lawsuit type of person,” she said. “I agree with their philosophy that we fought too hard to let this go on the wayside; I’m on their side on that, but I don’t do lawsuit . . . all it does it cost the taxpayers money.”

Mayor Brian Maryott, who voted against negotiating with Red Tail, also attended that Friday Coffee Chat, during which he echoed the chorus of frustrations over the proposal. Maryott also used an expletive to describe the argument that the city needs to develop the site to bring in much-needed revenue to pay for other projects such as the planned skatepark.

The city, he noted, is expected to receive Transient Occupancy Tax revenue from the Inn at the Mission luxury hotel that’s supposed to open later this year, as well as a $3 million payment from the County of Orange over its extended use of the Prima Deshecha Landfill.

While prefacing that he likes his fellow councilmembers and enjoys working with them, Maryott stated that “this council does not value open space for the sake of open space.”

The city has also planned to construct the community park project called Putuidem Village on a portion of the open space site as a cultural center honoring the Native American tribe, the Acjachemen Nation, also known as the Juaneño.

During the April 16 city council meeting, city staff is expected to present conceptual designs of the project for review.

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comments (9)

  • Mechelle Lawrence Adams Reply

    Thank you to these experienced leadership voices of the community.

    We should look to other Open Space Foundations in the state, take Northern Californias per se, and review these trusts to understand whether monetizing open space for tourism (glamping of all things!) is generally supported throughout the state. I am pretty sure that “intent” to provide open space for the benefit of taxpayers/residents is the primary objective not “visitor serving”. If it takes a lawsuit to protect our hills, heritage and equestrian identity then so be it.

    What next? Temporary housing on ridge lines? Do not open the door to this change in our residents’ intention and purpose of open space to be just that! We voted for the purchase and protection of open space as a community. If that is not clear then let’s have a vote!

  • Mechelle Lawrence Adams Reply

    By the way- where do we sign up to help with the referendum and initiative Mark Nielsen? Count me in! Save our Open Space! For our kids! For our history!

  • Mechelle Lawrence Adams Reply

    Remember we the people taxed ourselves – our intent- was to PREVENT development. I love it when electeds try to talk down to us and tell us they know better than we do—- the people! Why are we diverting tourism from our emerging downtown? Why is this even being considered? It is so unnecessary to chase this a a project and get everyone upset when we have a HUGE homeless issue, taco bell as our entry, and a need to ensure that we do not open up the dangerous precedent for selling off hillsides and ridgelines next! Just say no!

  • Mechelle Lawrence Adams Reply

    Remember we the people taxed ourselves – our intent- was to PREVENT development. I love it when electeds try to talk down to us and tell us they know better than we do—- the people! Why are we diverting tourism from our emerging downtown? Why is this even being considered? It is so unnecessary to chase this a a project? We do not open up the dangerous precedent for selling off hillsides and ridgelines next! Just say no!

  • There has been almost no citizen input or public inquiries on this issue.

    It is a fair question to ask if this is what the voters had in mind when they chose a long-term tax on themselves to support the City’s General Plan, and the concept of Open Space. Why the rush to exclusive negotiations with a commercial builder/developer whose website has some admirable commercial/ industrial/ retail projects, but no open space/ recreational projects or uses indicated? This proposal for taxpayer-purchased land needs broad citizen support to succeed.. We are not there yet.


    To: Mayor Maryott
    cc: David Contreras

    I am opposed to the River Street Project for many reasons, the most concerning reasons are detailed below.

    3/5– You launched your 2020 bid as a Congressional Candidate for 49th District by sending out emails asking for contributions, and you included:“ensuring stable economic growth and development, ending out of control government spending, and encouraging responsible stewardship of our environment are issues that will be central to my campaign.”
    3/15 – In a Dispatch article “Maryott Delivers State of the City Address,” you are quoted as saying…
    “I’m also confident another major project is likely to break ground this year as it becomes increasingly clear that the proposed River Street project is supported by the vast majority of our residents,” he said.”
    In my opinion, these two statements contradict each other. On one hand, how can you claim on 3/5, that you encourage responsible stewardship of our environment, and ten days later tell your constituents that the “River street project is likely to break ground this year,” BEFORE residents submitted comments about the River Street Project EIR are collected and addressed? It’s disconcerting that you appear to have made up your mind regardless of what residents have to say.

    As I understand it, the “EIR describes the environmental impacts of the proposed project and those of a number of alternative plans which must be discussed in meaningful detail. Next the City must provide sufficient information to the public to enable it to understand, evaluate, and respond to the agency’s conclusions. The discussion should “contain facts and analysis, not just the agency’s bare conclusions or opinions.”
    Therefore, I am submitting the following concerns and questions below:
    –This project will block ridgeline views, which are protected under the General Plan and the Los Rios Specific Plan.. If you allow these plans to be circumvented here, it will set precedent in destroying the unique views of our Ridgelines, which many of us moved here for. Do you plan on proposing blocking more views throughout the city with other developments? Will this open the door to building on our Ridgelines?
    -Several residents have asked for story poles to be erected; why hasn’t the city adopted this requirement like so many other surrounding cities have in order to give residents a true perspective of the scale of the proposed project? Will you spearhead building story poles as part of the EIR?
    -Please describe in detail what measures will be taken to protect residents from commercial activity like noise, fumes, property damage, crime and air quality surrounding this nearly 65,000 square feet of commercial and office space across five buildings, per the city?
    -Please list the potential businesses that would be included in the Los Rios Project.
    -Mayor Maryott in light of your statement, “I’m also confident another major project is likely to break ground this year as it becomes increasingly clear that the proposed River Street project is supported by the vast majority of our residents,” please share with me how you know the majority of residents, (approximately 40,000 in 13,000 households) support the 65,000 square foot Los Rios Project being built at the Los Rios district which is on the National Registry of Historic Places? Was this part of the EIR? Is there a study /focus group/ or questionnaire from the City that I may have missed? Have all households been informed by the city of this project or just surrounding homes in Los Rios?

    Mayor Maryott and Mr. Contreras I look forward to your responses and appreciate your time on this very important matter.


    -Instead they purchased 132 acres OUT of our town
    – 1/2 of the property they paid for was already protected open space!
    -They didn’t have the property inspected for permits etc as any normal purchase would entail
    -A private business BLENHEIM monopolizes the property for an elitist sport the vast majority
    of residents could NEVER afford

    And those are the good points!

    Then Councilmember Brian Maryott sat on the sidelines while his City administrations ignored commissioners reports of major environmental problems at the property, Finally commissioners went to the San Diego Water Board for help. The SDWB spent 1 1/2 years trying to get the city to clean it up- the city repeatedly failed to comply !!! The SDWB referred the case to the Coastkeepers whom the city repeatedly failed to work with….SJC Taxpayers got the bill, while Maryott blamed the commissioners and still supports an incompetent City Manager making $300,000 a year!

    None of the above actions are worthy of the description of experienced leadership.

  • Mechelle Lawrence Adams Reply

    Oh my. Nothing like going off on a tangent to muddy the waters or the issue of needing to protect the open space purchased in 1991 from being privately intensified and setting a precedent for open space and ridge-lines to be vacated from their preservation status without public input. This is an article on one issue not every issue. Noise obfuscates folks from being able to see the importance of this issue.

  • Sorry for any confusion, let me simplify for those that are confused by my above 2 posts. The one issue here is land and how it is used in SJC. My main point is the hypocrisy I see of Nielsen, Freese, Hribar, and Maryott in this article.

    In my opinion, based on their past actions and/or inaction (facts/examples included in my posts) they did and said nothing about the very same land issues/concerns in SJC in the past.


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