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New 12-acre park features more than 2,000 native plants and 240 species

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By Brian Park

California may be in the midst of a drought but the volunteers behind San Juan Capistrano’s newest park hope their garden of native plants serves as an oasis for guests, as well as local wildlife.

Hundreds gathered Saturday for a dedication ceremony and to take their first walk through Reata Park and Event Center.

The 12-acre park, located at 28632 Ortega Highway in the city’s eastern territory, features ample recreational space, an equestrian staging area, space for weddings and group events, a network of paths and trails and a restored historic home that will serve as a welcome center.

The nonprofit San Juan Capistrano Open Space Foundation built and funded the park. For over a year, volunteers spent nearly every weekend building fences and park benches, planting trees and flora and clearing paths, all for the citizens of San Juan Capistrano.

“You own all this. This is yours,” said Dick Paulsen, the foundation’s vice president. “Over 7,000 hours were put in to build this park … We loved building this park. All of our families will enjoy this for generations to come.”

The park also features more than 2,000 native plants, made up of around 240 different species, making it the first and only large native plant park in Southern California, according to Mike Evans, owner of Tree of Life Nursery, which provided the plants.

Ongoing maintenance of the park will cost the city around $300,000 a year, but most of the cost will be covered by the city’s $225,000 annual lease of the adjacent Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park with Blenheim Facility Management. That cost could have been more, but Evans said the park’s low-maintenance native plants require 80 percent less water than typical parks.

“The story of Reata Park is one of a big vision becoming a reality for public enjoyment,” Evans said. “Reata will serve as an example for homeowners and municipalities throughout Southern California … Some have said it’s the park of the future. We have it in San Juan Capistrano right now.”

On a tour of the park, Evans also highlighted a catch basin in the park’s arboretum, which will prevent contaminated runoff water from entering into nearby San Juan Creek. Native plants in the basin, Evans said, are able to survive in the water.

The land is part of 132 acres of open space, including the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, the city purchased from Rancho Mission Viejo in 2010 for $27.5 million, using a $30 million bond approved by voters in 2008.

“Reata Park is the culmination of a long process,” said Mayor Sam Allevato. “I don’t think there’s anything better than permanently protecting something that is beautiful.  The land and the landscapes here are truly beautiful.”

Gilbert Aguirre, Rancho Mission Viejo’s executive vice president of ranching operations, said the park will not only be enjoyed by San Juan Capistrano, but Ladera Ranch residents and the city’s future neighbors in the developing Rancho Mission Viejo communities.

“This is something we can be proud of, not only today but for the rest of our lives,” Aguirre said.

The park’s welcome center is located in a restored 1920 ranch house. Barbara Critchlow grew up in the home from 1942 to 1978, before moving to Texas. She and 18 of her family members were visiting Southern California, when they were invited to participate in the dedication as honored guests. Critchlow noted how much things had changed but praised the city for its new park.

“It’s gorgeous,” Critchlow said. “Don’t let it go to waste.”

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