By Brian Park
Daylight is barely an hour old by the time Belinda “Bee” Eschenwald begins swim practice at the JSerra Catholic High School pool. As the head coach of Capomasters, a local masters swimming club, she’d like nothing more than to holler encouraging words to the 10 to 15 swimmers that make it out to her early-morning workouts every weekday.
But directly southeast of the pool, across the school’s practice putting green and over a beige concrete fence, many of the residents of Casitas Capistrano are still asleep or have just started their day.
Out of respect for the residents, Eschenwald, with her feet flush with the pool’s edge, bends down from her waist to whisper her instructions to her pupils.
“Sometimes they can’t even hear what I say,” said Eschenwald, who is quick to even quiet her swimmers. “If anybody raises their voice, even if they just bring it up a little notch, I’m shushing them.”
Since JSerra opened its $40 million athletic campus in 2006, Casitas residents say they have faced an almost daily and nightly barrage of sound from the pool and adjacent fields.
Jeff Péo, a board member of Casitas’ homeowners association, has fought with the school for nearly six years to lessen the noise and to restore some semblance of the tranquility he fell in love with when he first moved into his home nearly eight years ago.
“We had a beautiful view of the hills before they put up that wall,” said Péo. “It’s supposed to be a noise barrier, but it’s got holes in it. It doesn’t abate noise at all. If you walk out next to it, it’s like you’re in prison.”
The plight of Casitas’ residents—of having to live with the cacophony of weekend swim meets and boisterous baseball and soccer games—has never been fully or seriously addressed, according to Péo. But in recent months, JSerra board members and athletic staff have relented to their neighbors, and the first potential victims might be Eschenwald and Capomasters’ 50-plus swimmers.
“I started with seven swimmers in 2007,” Eschenwald said. “It’s grown so much since then and it’s become an incredible little program.”
A Plea for Swimming
JSerra approached the program about a month ago, according to Eschenwald, and asked if they would consider moving to another location after Casitas residents complained the noise from Capomasters’ 6 a.m. practices disturbed their mornings.
The suggestion prompted Eschenwald and several swimmers to each give their testimony in defense of the program to the San Juan City Council May 1.
The club’s elderly swimmers highlighted the health benefits swimming provided.
Jose Busch said his asthma made running and cycling difficult, but swimming helped control his breathing. And when Joel Rosentswieg, 81, started the program, he needed to rest after swimming just 50 yards, but in July, he and seven other Capomasters swimmers will participate in the Sharkfest swim event—a 1-and-a-half mile swim from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco pier.
Capomasters is also an opportunity to make new connections, according to many members.
Fred Arnaud and Elizabeth Carter are soon to be married and met through Capomasters. Arnaud, who moved from France four years ago, said the program helped him socialize, but additionally kept his spirits up while battling cancer and dealing with a loved one’s death.
“I think without swimming I would be in a much worse situation mentally,” Arnaud said. “It allowed me to be in a great community of friends, and more than friendship, I met my other half.”
Working parents added that the program’s proximity to Interstate 5 helped them manage their schedules, and the new pool at San Juan Hills High isn’t a practical choice, according to Eschenwald, because it is too small to accommodate them and its central location presents a potential student safety issue.
From Just Over the Wall
Casitas homes on Calle Chueca are bound to the east by the I-5, but the constant drone of traffic is something the residents are used to—like white noise. Light, sound and activities from the JSerra athletic complex, however, is within some measure of control.
“It’s not that it’s super loud, it is just that it’s all the time. It’s non-stop,” said John Upp, who moved into the neighborhood last March with his wife. “The weekends are really bad, and they go until 8 to 8:30 at night.”
Péo has been the most outspoken Casitas resident. Over the past six years, he estimates that he has met with the school at least 40 times, in addition to walking over every once in a while to request events turn down their music and public address system.
The school has made a few concessions, according to Péo. Most recently, JSerra has hired engineers to conduct an acoustical study of the athletic facilities. The plan is to present the results at a meeting in June.
But JSerra’s attitude has also been one of quiet dismissiveness, according to Karina Maize, another Casitas resident. “They’ve just given us lip service this whole time.”
Maize’s home is not as close to the pool as others, but in the past, stray soccer and lacrosse balls from the field have toppled furniture and struck her pets. Maize has taken photographs and videos documenting the disturbances, but it took her five years of complaining before the school took any action.
Péo says he supports the use of the athletic facilities by the students, but the overuse of the pool and field by other groups is his primary concern.
“There’s no downtime for us,” said Péo. “Why should we have to be awakened in the morning? We deserve some breaks.”
No Middle Ground
Capomasters is just one of several non-school affiliated athletic clubs that use JSerra’s athletic complex. Per the school’s joint use agreement with the city, JSerra’s field and pool is available for public rentals during non-academic hours for an hourly rate.
Rental fees primarily go towards maintenance costs, and JSerra insists they do not turn a profit.
“Truth be told, we’re not maximizing what we could with the joint use agreement,” said JSerra Athletic Director Dave Lawn. “It’s more or less like putting money out of one pocket and putting it in the other.”
JSerra would prefer to keep Capomasters at the school—the program has supported the school’s aquatics teams and even contributed to the painting of lane markers at the bottom of the pool.
“They’ve been here since the school was built, and we’re very happy with them being renters here,” said Aquatics Director Julie Ertel.
The city manager’s office has also gotten more involved in the past several months, acting as a mediator between the school, Casitas residents and Capomasters.
All three parties have never met at the same time, however, so the city has set up a meeting for Monday, May 14.
“It will be interesting,” Péo said. “We haven’t been granted our rights in five or six years, so I’m not going to be willing to negotiate very much.”
Eschenwald hopes that a face-to-face meeting with Péo and Casitas residents will lead to some common ground. She sympathizes with their situation, but should her rental agreement pass without renewal, she does not know what will become of Capomasters and her family of swimmers.
“I’m not sure exactly what more we can do for the residents,” Eschenwald said. “I don’t want to lose what we’ve built here, and I don’t want to break apart this great little community. This program is my soul.”