By Mark Nielsen, former mayor of San Juan Capistrano
The City of San Juan Capistrano is holding public workshops this month on the fate of our Northwest Open Space.
I urge you to make your voice heard at the last hearing on June 24 at the Community Center or by email to the city clerk and city council. As a primary author of Measure X—the Open Space Initiative the citizens overwhelmingly passed in 2008—I feel compelled to speak out on the city’s attempt to lease our Northwest Open Space for private use, either as a “glamping” and RV park or as a winery/restaurant complex (private commercial projects).
This would transform our public natural open space into essentially a privately controlled resort or business enterprise with significant buildings, concrete and limited public access for decades.
Most of us believe that our open space is a critical component of what makes San Juan Capistrano so unique. In particular, the city’s NW Open Space makes a major statement as to our character and heritage. It was what first drew me here.
I remember driving south on Interstate-5 from my office in Irvine one night while looking for a residence after first arriving from Chicago. As I passed Avery Parkway, the lights suddenly went out, and I felt I had been transported to an oasis—with the smell of orange blossoms!
To immerse oneself in the natural beauty of our creeks and trails allows you to be transported from the daily grind back to a simpler life that was enjoyed by the ranchers, farmers and Juaneños of yesteryear. While walking or riding through the NW Open Space trails, or picnicking in the meadow, one can still look at the natural hillsides, creeks and vegetation and see what our ancestors saw more than 100 years ago.
Now the majority of our council is poised to destroy a major piece of our city’s character, apparently in fear that we need to generate revenue from whatever source we can find or deciding that conversion of our natural open space into privately controlled recreational facilities better serves our quality of life.
Abandoning the soul of our city’s character is not the answer without a vote of the citizens.
Because open space is such an important part of our town’s defining character, it makes sense that citizens reserve to ourselves any loss or major change of this key asset. That is what we did in 2008 with Measure X.
I disagree with city staff that changing the Land Use classification will not trigger Measure X voter approval. Not only would the change to the parcel’s current designation require a vote, but so would modifications to the permitted uses. This kind of change was precisely what we anticipated when we added the following ordinance language:
“This voter approval requirement is intended to preclude any form of amendment to any existing General Plan designated open space parcel by any future City Council by a process of change or amendment to ‘definitions’ or other statement of permissible uses . . . unless such change or amendment is submitted to and approved by a vote of the people.”
And on voter intent, let us not forget that in 1990 our citizens passed Measure D, which provided the money to purchase this NW Open Space. The intent of the citizens and promise of the city for the use of this parcel was made clear in the 1992 Open Space Master Plan that stated, “The Northwest Park Site is to be a rural community park . . . one that provides the opportunity for a variety of informal recreation use, nature study, equestrian use, historic interpretation, picnicking . . . a park that one can enter . . . and feel you’ve arrived in a natural area with minimum intrusion by man-made improvements and formed naturally, as if it has always been there. It also continues the function of a natural open space buffer to the City.”
Hardly a use that is consistent with either of the two private development options being considered by the city council.
I urge you to tell our city to remain true to the promise and vote of our citizens in both Measures D and X. To do otherwise is a breach of duty to our voters, opens the city to legal liability and forever destroys a major component of our unique character that makes clear to all traveling south that they have entered the bucolic oasis known as San Juan Capistrano.
Mark Nielsen is a local business executive and resident of San Juan for more than 30 years. He served on the City Council from 2006 to 2010 and was Mayor in 2009. He also chaired the city’s Open Space Committee. To respond to Mark’s guest opinion, send your comments and letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.