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By 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.