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Mark NielsenBy Mark Nielsen

Our city appears to be heading down a path of abandoning our decades-long commitment to preserving San Juan’s unique rural, equestrian and historic character in exchange for short-term revenue needs. While I know from my time on the City Council that we face a growing shortfall in future revenue, instead of being reactive, we need to be proactive in addressing the need in a way that preserves and enhances what makes this place so special. A red flag should go up when so many of the current projects require amendments to our General Plan.

Some of the actions are blatant, such as the push to lease out the Northwest Open Space to commercial interests that could forever change the face of our entry from the north. At night, you know when you have entered San Juan Capistrano driving south on I-5 because it gets dark. In daylight, there is abundant open space establishing that you have arrived at an historic oasis in the midst of Orange County’s urban sprawl. I can’t imagine we all taxed ourselves these many years just to have the city lease out this natural open space to commercial ventures.

Other actions are more subtle, such as the vote to sell the playhouse site and adjacent parking lot across the street from Cedar Creek to a developer that wants to build a commercial project and performing arts center. (But the performing arts center is not part of the deal—the developer merely offers a contingent donation of a portion of the land to a future nonprofit that will have to raise tens of millions of dollars to build and maintain a performing arts center). The project as envisioned would be hard to fit on such a small site and would not fit the character of the location and adjacent adobe, let alone the traffic impacts. It should also be noted that the city is not required to sell the parking lot.

Then we have the 61,000 square feet of commercial development with five buildings being proposed in the Los Rios District, on the Ito Nursery parcel. This project fundamentally changes the character (and traffic) of a landmark in our town that is on the National Register of Historic Places (the oldest residential street in all of California). It also requires an amendment to our General Plan and contradicts the Los Rios Specific Plan.

We also have a push by at least one member of the City Council to do away with the Historic Town Center Master Plan, which the city spent over $600,000 creating (not to mention countless hours of staff and citizens’ time in numerous workshops). Councilman Derek Reeve suggested that we just change the form-based code to include the essential pieces of the HTC Master Plan. This is like saying we should replace the Declaration of Independence and Constitution with a bunch of regulations and laws. The first set out the vision. The second merely provide implementation rules. The vision must always remain to give context and direction for future generations to interpret regulations.

Developers and landowners understandably want to maximize their profits and sale price for their land. The city needs to shape the developers’ plans and expectations to fit what will enhance and protect the uniqueness of our community without constantly reverting to changing our General Plan to satisfy the developer. If a project “does not pencil out” at lower density or within the limitations of our guidelines, then perhaps the developer is overpaying for the land. It should not be at the expense of our citizens and our town’s character that we maximize what a landowner or developer makes.

Yes, we need to improve the financial picture of the city. But we need to do it in a way that does not destroy our unique character that caused so many of us to make San Juan our home. We have a proud history of past city leadership standing up to protect our character (such as suing the county to protect our ridgelines). Let us not lose that history based on short-sighted fiscal fear.

Mark Nielsen is a local business executive and resident of San Juan for over 25 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

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About The Author Capo Dispatch

comments (5)

  • Very well said.

  • I do not disagree that the current owners of the property deserve a fair price for their land.

    If our City Council were not so set on wasting our tax dollars on law suits, we might have been able to purchase the land and turn it into a historical park with picnic tables and a winding path that traces the history of our city.

    • The is not entitlement for a property to be re-zoned. Sure, you can submit a proposal for a property to be re-zoned, but it does not mean it is going to be granted. The Ito’s have had over 50 years to have had the property re-zoned and could have done so anytime to General Plan was amended and have chosen not to do so.

      There is no need to develop Open Space. It is exactly that, Open Space.

  • Mark,
    You and your council crew during your tenure began this selloff. Your inaction to solve fiscal issues has become a real issue for the City’s future and has lead the current council to this point. You wrote “While I know from my time on the City Council that we face a growing shortfall in future revenue, instead of being reactive, we need to be proactive…” Were you proactive during your time? No. Did you plan for the next 50+ years for the City? Did you even think about it? No. Your a bit quick to judge Derek on his comments…at least he is presenting a choice.

    During the last election I presented a plan to many residents (and officials) for the downtown that could drastically change our revenue stream yet preserve the historic downtown. Expanding the downtown area from the Mission past Del Obispo to Plaza Del Rio shopping area. Make the entire area car-free; Put parking behind all the businesses and it would become a great outdoor shopping complex. This plan has challenges but the long-term revenue, business-friendly area would be better than the Outlets of San Clemente. Revenue is driven from tax, so create more opportunities for business to fill the coffers. What plan did you and Lon ever have? What plan did ANY of the current newly elected council have? None.

    You are correct though about the reactive actions of council….but lets not limit it to just the current one. Our Council needs to focus on their current tasks and focus on the future of this City…and not be distracted by finishing degrees, running for other elections, and in-fighting.

  • As usual, Nielsen is long on wind, and woefully short on specifics. And certainly nothing viable. Exactly what Neilsen brought to his time on City Council. Thankfully those of us who were here then saw for what it was and he was not re-elected. Not unlike the pied piper, lofty on goals (doesn’t most everyone like the way they sound?) but still an empty path set on catastrophe if not altered.

    We need people on Council that can balance issues and solve problems. Hopefully this Council will be successful. Time will tell. In the meantime, lets give them the chance and support to do their job for us.

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