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 Brian Park

The 13-foot-tall, 36-foot-long apatosaurus replica at Zoomars Petting Zoo has earned the nickname “Juan.” Photo by Brian Park

Unlike its real-life predecessors, Juan, the controversial dinosaur replica at Zoomars Petting Zoo in San Juan Capistrano’s Los Rios Historic District, continues to stave off extinction.

The Cultural Heritage Commission on Tuesday, November 27, approved Zoomars owner Carolyn Franks’ proposed revisions to her conditional-use permit which would allow her to keep the 13-foot-tall, 36-foot-long structure on her property.

The commission’s approval represents the city’s first show of support for the dinosaur since it was installed in June on the former Jones Mini Farm Property.

After receiving several complaints from residents about the dinosaur’s placement in the historic neighborhood, city staff determined it was inconsistent with the Los Rios Specific Plan and issued a notice for its removal.

In August, the Planning Commission unanimously voted down Franks’ appeal to keep the structure because she had not received the city’s approval before installing it. Following the Cultural Heritage Commission’s decision Tuesday, the Planning Commission will now consider the item once more at a future meeting.

Franks’ revised permit calls for the creation of four distinct areas on her property, in addition to the existing petting zoo: a farm area, including signage about San Juan Capistrano’s cattle-ranching history; an Acjachemen Indian village for Native American demonstrations; an Old West town, which would incorporate existing elements; and a prehistoric garden with the dinosaur serving as its centerpiece.

The commission also approved Franks’ proposal for the addition of shade and covered structures, a fossil sandbox and “dig area” and a Juaneno kiicha, or reed hut.

“I feel very confident about evolving the zoo into something that maintains the historical integrity of Los Rios but that continues to provide good old-fashioned fun for kids,” Franks said.

Franks’ most vocal critics throughout the controversy has been the Capistrano Historical Alliance, a group of residents with ties to San Juan Capistrano’s historical families. Jerry Nieblas, the group’s president, has called the dinosaur a “mockery” of the area’s history and reemphasized that point to the commission.

“(The dinosaur) disrupts our history. It doesn’t tell the story about that street,” Nieblas said. “It would be like if I painted my house pink and didn’t care what anyone thought about it and didn’t want to go through the commissions, didn’t want to go through code enforcement and just said, ‘This is what I want. This is the way it’s going to be.’”

Commissioner Jan Siegel, who supplied the lone opposing vote, agreed.

“There should be no reward to the Jones Mini Farm for ignoring our rules, our regulations and our history,” Siegel said. “We as a commission have already supported staff position in not approving the dinosaur several months ago. Now there’s a new plan before us and this new addition seems to me like throwing mud at a wall and seeing what sticks.”

Commissioner Nathan Banda, who cited his family’s longtime heritage in San Juan Capistrano and has helped Franks in the past in putting together Native American demonstrations at the petting zoo, said Franks’ latest proposal is a chance to support local business.

“I don’t agree with Carolyn not following proper protocols, but here we are today and how do we move forward?,” Banda said. “I’d rather support the city that I live in.”

Chairwoman Rhonda deHaan also emphasized the need for the city to move forward and added that the proposed changes would help draw more visitors, particularly families with children, to the city.

“I think it’s a great way to actually get people to Los Rios who would never go and would never learn about it,” deHaan said. “I think the opportunity to bring more people, make it fun, get children involved when they’re young and interested could be beneficial.”

Trustworthy, accurate and reliable local news stories are more important now than ever. Support our newsroom by making a contribution and becoming a subscribing member today.

About The Author Capo Dispatch