One thing San Juan Capistrano is known for is the abundance of open outdoor space.
Mayor Howard Hart wants to keep that going in 2023.
Hart recently spoke with The Capistrano Dispatch about what the new year holds in store for the historic town. One of his chief concerns is ensuring the state government does not encroach on the community and build housing in spots where people are used to going for walks or horse rides.
“We kind of got a head start on it in December, when we got a long-term lease for The Ecology Center—a 40-year lease there. A big emphasis is going to be solidifying the future of our open spaces,” Hart said. “That means pursuing and, hopefully, finalizing the extension with the (Rancho Mission Viejo) Riding Park, and I think we’re very close there—probably within a couple of months, hopefully, of doing that.”
Hart is referring to the city negotiating with current operators the Ridland Group to secure a long-term agreement for managing the popular equestrian and event space. City officials opted to begin negotiating with the Ridlands in December 2021. The Riding Park frequently hosts horse riding shows and country music concerts and is also open for people who just want to enjoy a natural area.
“We are also, of course, in an exclusive negotiating agreement with Frontier Real Estate Investments for the Northwest Open Space,” Hart said. “The key there is, really, to preserve our ability to maintain these spaces as they were voted on by the residents of San Juan Capistrano some 30 years ago. The State of California, in their need to address housing, is really taking away the discretionary authorities of local governments to locally zone their own land.”
A proposal previously submitted by Frontier—which is headed up by local developer and resident Dan Almquist—would involve the establishment of what would be called Legacy Ranch, incorporating equestrian and hospitality elements, among other features.
Potential future amenities could include a horse facility with riding arenas and spectator seating, along with an outdoor amphitheater and café. Almquist is partnering with local equestrian Kathy Holman and Trevor’s at the Tracks owner Trevor Baird on the project.
“(Preserving open space) maintains the character of our town,” Hart said. “When most people look at San Juan Capistrano, you look at the ridgelines and open spaces. It keeps us from being wall-to-wall strip malls and condo complexes.”
On a personal level, Hart said he is honored to serve as mayor for the first time. Hart was elected to the City Council in November 2020 and has a military background, as a former Navy captain. He was even at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks.
Hart’s colleagues chose him to be mayor for 2023 this past December. Councilmembers generally serve a rotating one-year term as mayor during their four-year terms on the dais.
“Someday, perhaps, it will settle in,” Hart said. “I had no intention, quite honestly, of getting involved in politics when I retired from the Navy and moved back home. Like many other people, I came into politics because I saw a need for people to get involved, and I was disturbed by some things that I saw that (were) going on with the Council at the time.”
Hart began his local political endeavors on San Juan’s Planning Commission, which advises the City Council on upcoming decisions and issues.
“When you look at San Juan Capistrano, growing up here next door in Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano is always unique,” Hart said. “We’ve always had this amazing history as exemplified by the Mission. We’ve had the equestrian component, and we’ve had this unique downtown that sets us apart from nearby communities. To be the mayor of that, it’s a very humbling experience. It’s like you’re made custodian of a long legacy that you must protect.”
In addressing the criticism from some residents that the City Council’s votes on projects and proposals is overly pro-development, Hart said city officials have to consider the alternatives if they say no. Hart has previously said that if Almquist’s plans for office and retail space at what is now the Camino Real Playhouse property were not approved, high-density housing with no parking might be put there instead, with no local oversight.
“Sometimes, the development we’re approving is a better alternative than what exists, as far as preserving that heritage,” Hart said. “It’s not that I object at all to more housing or to low-income housing and making San Juan Capistrano more affordable. We just need to be able to plan it in a manner where it benefits our community. When you look at how we rezone for (the Regional Housing Needs Assessment required by the state), we’ve been able to do it in a manner that’s less intrusive to our community.”
Another local project on the horizon is the transition to a new City Hall and moving the City Council Chamber to the Community Center. The City Council held its final meeting at City Hall last year, while city services have since transitioned to temporary office space on Rancho Viejo Road. The old City Hall facility will be demolished to make way for a new City Hall building that will incorporate affordable housing. Construction is anticipated to finish in two or three years.
Hart said mixing in the affordable housing component for homeless people is an example of a solution that works when it comes to addressing housing needs.
Meanwhile, the new City Council Chamber at the Community Center is expected to be complete later this year.
“I’m actually amazed at how well it came out in December, when we moved into the Nydegger Building temporarily for the City Council Chamber, and how well the staff did in creating an atmosphere that worked for our city,” Hart said. “The designs for the new City Hall are certainly impressive, and I look forward to seeing that later this year. I think we’re talking about an October or November time frame (for) opening up the new City Council Chamber.”
The city is further engaged in a long-term street repaving project, which began last year on Camino Capistrano. The next stage of that will see neighborhood streets start to get repaved.
“This is going to be a multi-year project,” Hart said. “It’s not going fast enough for anybody, including me, but I ask for everyone’s patience on that.”
As for the fun part of San Juan, Hart is one of many looking forward to this year’s Swallows Day Parade. The annual festival will take place downtown in late March to celebrate the birds’ annual return and—barring more unforeseen circumstances—should have horses, as usual. Actor Dennis Quaid will serve as the Grand Marshal.
“I’m very excited about that. I know we’ve got a terrific parade planned,” Hart said. “I look forward to, hopefully, getting a selfie with Dennis Quaid. Anyone who grew up in the ’80s remembers him. I can’t wait to be involved with that. I can’t wait to get San Juan Capistrano out and, once again, show it off to the world.”
Skateboarders should also take note: city officials are looking at reintroducing a motion this year for an environmental impact report on San Juan’s long-awaited, first-ever skate park. That project hit a snag last year when former mayor Carolyn Nash filed a lawsuit over environmental concerns about the project.
“We had hoped to do it later this year, but, quite honestly, it was just bandwidth on the staff with the move and so on,” Hart said. “Hopefully, by this time next year, you’ll be talking to the next mayor about moving forward with that.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.