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The 418-unit Laguna Glen retirement community also includes health and memory care centers
By Brian Park
A proposal to build a new luxury retirement community on one of San Juan Capistrano’s last agricultural properties has drawn significant interest from prospective residents, but some locals say the project undermines the city’s small-town charm and puts a strain on already-congested traffic.
The San Juan Capistrano Planning Commission last Tuesday got their first look at Spieker Senior Development’s Laguna Glen project, which would be located on a 35-acre site at 32383 Del Obispo Street, on the current distribution site of Armstrong Garden Center, behind its retail store.
Laguna Glen would include 418 independent living units, as well as a health care center with 39 assisted care units, 21 memory-support care units and 41 nursing-care rooms. It’s intended for residents over 60, with an average entry age at 75, according to a city staff report. Residents would also have access to a clubhouse, recreation building and outdoor amenities.
With Commissioners Sheldon Cohen and Ian Gardiner absent from Tuesday’s meeting, and with Commissioner Evan Chaffee having to recuse himself because of his residence nearby, the five-member body lacked a quorum and had to continue the introductory meeting. The commission reconvened Monday and appointed Commissioners Tim Neely and Roy Nunn to an ad-hoc committee to work with the developer on architectural design.
Those who spoke against the project Tuesday criticized its density and said the community would contribute to existing traffic woes.
“This spot is tiny and it looks like we’re trying to put too many things in that small space. That scares me,” said San Juan Capistrano resident Claire Elkins. “Our lives will be different.”
Troy Bourne, principal at Spieker, told the commission that although Laguna Glen would add some traffic, early studies suggest its impact to surrounding streets would be minimal.
“It’s not a lot and the patterns are pretty well defined,” said Bourne.
Nunn said although he does not believe entirely in traffic studies, the senior community is unlikely to generate significant impact.
“Yes we have traffic issues, but the general age group we’re talking about is not one that goes out at five o’clock en masse. There’s not a sudden exodus of traffic out of this development,” Nunn said.
For the project to come to fruition, the land must be rezoned to allow for residential development from its current designation, agricultural business.
In a letter written July 11, former mayor and councilwoman Carolyn Nash asked the commission to deny any request to rezone the land and preserve the city’s remaining agricultural portfolio. She noted that residents had supported the preservation of agricultural land in three ballot measures, including one in 1978 that sought to rezone 230 acres of farm land to residential but “failed by a very large margin.”
“This would not only be a loss of our valuable agricultural land, it would also be a loss of part of our historical heritage,” Nash wrote. “The citizens of San Juan Capistrano have consistently supported preservation of agriculture.”
City staff has said, however, that no plants are actually grown in the soil but in planters. Armstrong Garden Center currently uses the property as a distribution site, but they plan on relocating operations to San Diego County and closer to the company’s headquarter in Ventura County, according to an environmental study of the project.
Bourne said Spieker does not have an agreement to purchase the store. He also addressed rumors that the project had forced the closure of the nearby Farm to Market store in July, saying it was a decision that was made independent of Laguna Glen. Bourne said the grocery store would be replaced by Hanson’s Market and would serve to benefit future residents.
Ron Castruita, owner of the Hanson’s Market in San Clemente, spoke in support of the project.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all of you there in San Juan Capistrano,” Castruita said. “This community that’s being developed would really be the feather in the cap for us.”
Laguna Niguel resident Gary Germann, whose wife’s family has owned the land for over 50 years, also spoke in support of the project.
“Farm to Market left because they couldn’t make it,” Germann said. “We’re delighted because we found Hanson’s.”
Opponents of the project also criticized the developer for appearing to sell units before any city approval. Bourne said under state law, potential senior living communities are required to assess demand for their projects by providing information, establishing wait lists and accepting deposits, which Spieker is unable to use until cleared by the state.
Many prospective residents and their families came in support of the project, wearing blue shirts that read “I Heart SJC.”
“At my age, I’m looking forward to moving there when it’s completed. I like the long-term care feature,” said San Juan Capistrano resident John Bates. “I think the impact it will have on our city is minimal.”
San Juan Capistrano resident Diana Doll said the community allows her to move out of her current home but stay local.
“This is a perfect solution for me and others to downsize to Laguna Glen and remain in my chosen city,” Doll said.
Nunn said that the density had to be lowered, and in working in the ad-hoc committee, he hopes to find a compromise.
“I think we’re going to be looking for the density here to be done in a way that enhances the area and have the appearance of much lower density,” Nunn said. “It’s just a matter of how you open it up.”
He added that he hoped the developer would consider changing the community’s name.
“This isn’t Laguna Niguel, Laguna creek,” Nunn said. “It’s San Juan Capistrano.”
The commission will reconsider the project in late August or early September.