Three aspects of San Juan Capistrano set it apart from its neighboring towns in South Orange County, Mayor Howard Hart boasted Thursday night, Sept. 14.
First, is the town’s “unparalleled history.”
“Now, one would be hard pressed to write the history of Orange County without starting in San Juan Capistrano,” he said.
Second, Hart noted, is that San Juan is a small town with a vibrant city center, where although its residents have differences of opinions, there’s much for everyone to be proud of.
“We’re like a big, sometimes, dysfunctional family … we might often bicker among ourselves,” Hart said. “So we are one proud city.”
The third component of San Juan’s identity that makes it standout is its equestrian heritage, Hart explained during the annual State of the City address that the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce hosted at the Inn at the Mission on Thursday.
“For as long as I remember, I always associated San Juan Capistrano with horses,” he said before highlighting the city’s recent endeavors with local organizations and businesses to preserve that equestrian component across San Juan.
“A few years back, the future of our equestrian community was threatened,” Hart claimed. “However, thanks to a combination of private investment, community involvement, and a council committed to ensuring that San Juan Capistrano’s equestrian heritage remains a feature of our community rather than a part of its history, I’ve seen recent progress.”
This past June, a City Council majority approved a long-term lease agreement with Robert and Hillary Ridland for the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park.
The agreement requires the Ridlands to make improvements on the property regarding water quality as it pertains to what’s called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which applies to equestrian activities—a result of a 2017 lawsuit filed by the environmental nonprofit Orange County Coastkeeper.
“This agreement allows the Ridland group to make the necessary investments and improvements to meet their own environmental obligations while taking the park to a new level of excellence as an event-centered community asset,” Hart said.
Hart also pointed to the council’s recent decision to unanimously approve a license agreement with Frontier Real Estate Investments for short-term operations of the historic Swanner House venue at the Northwest Open Space.
Hart noted that improvements to the city-owned property are almost complete, which promises to preserve the space’s rustic environment. The project, he said, also included consideration of an equestrian component.
“The bottom line is, looking at where our equestrian community is now, compared to where we were at three years ago, we see a community that is once again on solid footing for the foreseeable future,” Hart said of the latest efforts to preserve San Juan’s equestrian amenities and programs.
Near the onset of Hart’s speech Friday he expressed how honored he was to address the business community and its leaders.
“The City Council is committed to creating a healthy and secure environment for our retail businesses and shops,” Hart said, adding that “2023 has been a tremendous year for San Juan Capistrano, business is booming.”
One recent example of that boom was the opening of the long awaited Ganahl Lumber location on Stonehill Drive.
“‘Taj Ganahl,’” Hart called it to an amused audience, “immediately became the happiest place on earth for general contractors throughout South Orange County.”
“Having had the opportunity to walk through the site a few times, I assure you that you will be absolutely floored by this addition to our city,” Hart said.
And earlier this year, he continued, the city and Jamboree Housing Corporation, a nonprofit housing developer, broke ground on the project to construct an affordable housing complex and a new city hall facility on the site of the old city hall on Paseo Adelanto.
The project, which will include 49 affordable housing units and one additional unit for an on-site manager, is intended for veterans, low-income families, and formerly homeless people.
“When complete, this transformational project will combine affordable housing with best practice services for 50 individuals with disabilities and the lengthy history of homelessness,” explained Hart, a retired Navy captain. “Important to me, those veterans who served our country will have priority placement in 10 of those units.”
Hart further noted the benefits of incorporating a permanent supportive housing model to combat homelessness.
“This is not a Band-Aid solution. Those who enter permanent supportive housing have a 90% success rate in avoiding a return to homelessness,” he stated, adding, “Although we have a long way to go, this council remains committed to fighting homelessness.”
The city hall complex, Hart said, is expected to open in late 2024. As part of the project, the Council Chamber, which is currently located in the Nydegger Building on La Matanza, will be relocated to the San Juan Capistrano Community Center this December.
The center “is being modified to host everything from City Council and commission meetings to Jazzercise, though not at the same time,” Hart joked. “The state of our modular design will include upgraded audio visual interfaces and will be able to flex in size to accommodate large meetings for when we consider high-interest topics.”
In that vein, Hart also reiterated his dismay with the condition of San Juan’s streets.
“Speaking of high-interest topics, when I was running for City Council a few years back, I used to say that it was unforgivable that we had C-minus roads in our A-plus town,” Hart said. “I am proud that this council is acting.”
Citing the city’s recent completion of the Camino Capistrano Pavement Rehabilitation Project, Hart explained how the city is planning to build on that progress with the Local Streets Pavement and Rehabilitation Project.
The City Council this month approved a contract with R.J. Noble Company, Inc. to rehabilitate the pavement on several San Juan streets in five areas, or zones, throughout the city.
“That’s a lot of asphalt to be poured in 12 months’ time,” Hart noted. “This constitutes only the second phase of a multi-year program that’s going to bring our streets to the standard that the residents of San Juan Capistrano deserve.”
Another recent accomplishment Hart pointed to was Metrolink’s plans to use a new train tracking technology that’s expected to help ease traffic congestion, sometimes the result of the Del Obispo Street crossing—where the “ghost train” is known locally to pass through.
The crossing is colloquially nicknamed the “ghost train” because whenever the signal arms come down, oftentimes no train actually travels by.
“As longtime residents are aware, nearly a quarter of the time, when the drop arm drops on Del Obispo, no train passes,” Hart estimated. “And that disruption triggers signals all the way up and down a considerable part of Del Obispo.”
“We look forward to busting the ‘ghost train’ by the end of 2024,” Hart said to the enthusiastic crowd Friday night.
One of the last ongoing projects Hart highlighted was the plan to construct a skate park on the northwest corner of The Ecology Center’s property in the early part of 2024. The long-awaited park is expected to be completed by next summer.
“The skate park is long overdue,” Hart said.
In closing, Hart stated that the city has had an eventful year, adding that everything he highlighted was done all “while maintaining a balanced budget and a healthy reserve fund.”
“But none of these achievements would have been possible without the collaboration and cooperation of so many people in our organization,” Hart said, later adding, “Looking ahead, we face new challenges and opportunities. We’ll continue to work to attract and retain businesses and visitors.”