SUPPORT THIS INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM
The article you’re about to read is from our reporters doing their important work — investigating, researching, and writing their stories. We want to provide informative and inspirational stories that connect you to the people, issues and opportunities within our community. Journalism requires lots of resources. Today, our business model has been interrupted by the pandemic; the vast majority of our advertisers’ businesses have been impacted. That’s why The Capistrano Dispatch is now turning to you for financial support. Learn more about our new Insider’s program here. Thank you.
By Shawn Raymundo
Compliance with last year’s settlement agreement over allegations that the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park contributed to pollution in San Juan Creek is estimated to cost the city nearly $8.5 million in upgrades to the equestrian facility and Eastern Open Space.
The city recently updated its Seven-Year Capital Improvement Program in the Fiscal 2019-20 budget to account for its planned expenses toward the water quality projects mandated by the consent decree signed in September of last year.
A 2017 lawsuit, filed by the environmental organization Orange County Coastkeeper against the city and the park’s operator, Blenheim Facility Management (BFM), claimed that the creek was being contaminated with polluted stormwater, trash and equine-based pollutants such as horse manure from the park.
The city and BFM have denied such allegations.
According to the city’s breakdown of estimated costs for the projects, $6.14 million is likely to be needed toward a stormwater treatment system at the park, which is considered a large “concentrated animal feeding operation,” or CAFO. About another $1.8 million will need to be allocated to a Stream Bank Restoration project and nearly $5,000 is to be directed to the removal of the Arizona Crossing road over the creek.
A windfall of $3 million the city is expected to receive from the County of Orange next month for its extended use of the Prima Deshecha Landfill is currently set aside specifically for the projects.
Based on the updated 2019-20 budget, the city is looking to spend just shy of $900,000 for the three projects in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. The city has earmarked the remaining $2.1 million for the projects in future fiscal years.
The additional funding necessary to comply with the agreement could potentially come from Blenheim or the park’s underwriter, Tokio Marine Specialty Insurance Company, both of which the city is currently suing for alleged breaches of contract over the Coastkeeper lawsuit.
The city recently filed a lawsuit against BFM and Tokio in order to recoup its losses, arguing that both companies have failed to repay the city for the legal costs associated with fighting Coastkeeper.
Blenheim has said the allegations lack merit.
The city and Blenheim agreed to several commitments under the settlement, including the installation of a “recording rain gauge” at the park, ensuring that “no drains and/or pipes” discharge directly into the creek, developing a Rain Event Action Plan (REAP) and potentially grading the area between the stables and the creek to reduce runoff.
The city has been making the upgrades to the equestrian center, some prior to the settlement agreement, according to Assistant City Manager Charlie View. The rain gauge was put in last July, and the city had submitted the REAP to the San Diego Water Board in December of 2017.
The settlement explains that the REAP is meant to reduce “exposure of stormwater” to the park’s “production areas, trash, manure, temporary bathrooms, materials, metals, and fueling areas.” It would also entail the “more robust use of sandbags, sediment traps, wattles, or similar measures before rain events.”
“REAP training was implemented through a combination of staff, consultants and BFM employees,” View said in an email. “The estimate for consultant charges for the Rain Gauge, REAP and Training Program is $3,000.”
In regard to the grading, View said, “The City is in the process of designing the San Juan Creek Slope Stabilization project, and this work is intended to include the grading of the area between the stables and the creek to reduce runoff.”
The consent decree also mandates the city meet with the South Orange County Wastewater Authority (SOCWA) to “explore implementation of an adaptive (best management practice, BMP), to be implemented by Dec. 31, 2019, to pump runoff from the grass field into SOCWA’s wastewater system.”
View said the city’s discussions with SOCWA regarding the feasibility of an adaptive BMP began this past fall, with talks centered on the “the size of ponding area on the grass field, typical discharge volumes and rate of input to the sewer system from a rain event.”
“The City Engineer and our water quality consultants utilized the 2019 winter rain season to assist in developing our feasibility analysis for the interim measure,” View said in the email. “This process is still being completed, and the potential costs to the City have not yet been determined.”
Currently, the city is going through the Request for Proposals process for a company to manage the riding park. The window to submit proposals to the city closed on May 23.
According to Blenheim attorney Wayne Call, Blenheim is seeking to renew its contract and submitted its proposal to the city.
View said the city received two proposals: one from Action Sports Management Group and another from Horse Services, Inc., which is doing business as Griffith Park Horse Rentals. View notes that while BFM didn’t submit an RFP, Blenheim members Robert Ridland and Melissa Brandes are principals of Action Sport.
“Staff and our consultant are in the process of reviewing the proposals,” View said in the email.
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.