By Shawn Raymundo
At the city council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 20, councilmembers heard from a small handful of individuals urging them to get longstanding plans back on track to build Putuidem Village—a cultural venue honoring the Acjachemen tribe.
And just down the road from city hall, on the corner of Del Obispo Street and Paseo Adelanto, members of South County’s tribal community gathered for a prayer rally, demonstrating against the city for tabling the project, which, if completed, would sit on a portion of the Northwest Open Space where the original Putuidem village once stood.
“There are 13 generations that are still here and (city governments are) still ignoring us, so today we came to pray and come together so they can see us as a community, so the outside community can see us as Native Americans,” said Nathan Banda, a tribal member and one of the organizers of the rally.
Touching on the years-long dispute between the three factions of the Acjachemen Nation, which had split over leadership and election disputes, Banda was disappointed in the city for delaying the project after those factions had come together in recent years for the sake of the park.
“All the factions got together, and that was all the healing process for them to come together, to come and put their thoughts and their prayers to honor their ancestors on this ancestral land and to go through city councils and get (Putuidem) approved,” said, Banda. “Now we’re back to square one.”
Back at city hall, Steven Romero, one of many in a chorus of residents who want to see the city break ground on Putuidem and keep the rest of the open space as is, said the local community wants to preserve the history of that land.
“We would like to keep a little bit of that history; we’re not just talking about San Juan history, or Acjachemen history, but we’re talking about the land and what it really means to us,” Romero told the council.
Drawing from memories of his childhood, Romero said he wants his grandchildren and future generations of his family to enjoy the open space the same way he did growing up.
“When you grew up here, you played in the dirt, you rode your bike down the creek,” he said. “I’d like a little bit of that left to give to my grandchildren and their grandchildren and on and on.”
Councilmembers, back in mid-April, placed the project on pause amid concerns raised by Mayor Pro Tem Troy Bourne that the city’s municipal code contained inconsistent language related to open-space use and zoning, potentially leaving the city open to litigation.
Bourne had brought to light those discrepancies in response to threats of a legal challenge from Mark Nielsen, a former San Juan councilmember and mayor.
Nielsen had been vocal in his opposition to the city negotiating with Red Tail Acquisitions, a developer proposing to turn the open space into a campground. After the council voted, 4-1, in favor of those negotiations, with Mayor Brian Maryott dissenting, Nielsen said he would consider suing the city if it decided to move forward with those plans without letting voters have a say in the matter.
Bourne, who’s currently in his freshman year on the council, has maintained that his intention of getting the municipal code straightened out is to put Putuidem on “sound legal footing” and protect the city from another lawsuit.
During the council’s April 16 meeting, the council voted, 4-1, to suspend the Red Tail negotiations and the Putuidem project until the inconsistencies can be ironed out through a public workshop process. Councilmember Derek Reeve was the sole dissenting vote.
The city hosted a pair of workshops at the Community Center in June, gathering input from local residents about how they would like the open space to be used. An overwhelming majority of those who attended the forums expressed support for Putuidem.
For Banda, however, he says the workshops were all for show, claiming the city is already set in its decision to develop on the Northwest Open Space.
“The workshops, for me, was a dog and pony show. They already had their agenda, and they’re just trying to force it down our throats,” Banda said, later acknowledging, “You know what? I understand that they want to do the park, but they’re saying ‘in order to do the park, we have to do this. In order to do that park, you have to do this.’ ”
Banda said the tribal community will continue to push the council to leave the land as open space without any development.
“The community voted to keep it open space, and we intend to keep it that way,” he said, adding that the land should be for the Acjachemen to “call home, to practice ceremony where we want to practice ceremony.”
During the last workshop on June 24, City Manager Ben Siegel, responding to a question about what’s to come next following the public forums, said the city staff would return to the council in August with a summary of the feedback.
However, earlier this month, the city launched an online community survey to gather supplemental feedback. During Tuesday’s meeting, Siegel said the results of that survey and input gathered from the workshops would be presented during the council’s Sept. 17 meeting.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.