Update from San Juan Capistrano’s Endangered Los Rios Historic District…

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by Michael Laux

Here’s the latest from the Los Rios Historic District in San Juan Capistrano. We enjoy living in the oldest continually occupied residential neighborhood in California and we’re listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The neighborhood is very rural, cool, laid back, and right next to the railroad tracks. There are buildings dating back to the late 1700’s that have been featured on Huell Howser’s “California Gold.” Walking down our streets feels like a step back in time.  People come here to escape the hustle bustle of the O.C.

Like all good things that apparently “must come to an end” in the name of profit, an ambitious developer, attempting to cash in on the charm of the area, has proposed a commercial/retail complex that has been referred to as a mall, a shopping center, a gathering place, and, for those who care about quality of life, – an irreversible mistake.  No matter what you call it the project has grown in size to 64,900 sqft from its original 59,000 sq ft. This includes 292 parking places to be placed on 5.5 acres currently occupied by and zoned for a nursery. A small portion of the proposed project is within the designated Historic District and the rest butts right up to it. This property is  governed by two documents, The Los Rios Specific Plan, and The General Plan.

Currently the property is designated as Low Density Commercial stating the following :  “Purpose and intent: to provide for low intensity commercial uses that reinforce the rural character of the Los Rios area and will not alter the existing topography. Such uses will require minimal, permanent structures, low lighting intensities, and will generate minimum traffic and parking demand. Principal uses permitted: Retail sales and storage of plants, trees, shrubs and other nursery items; farmers’ market items such as fruits and vegetables sold from temporary open air stand; arts and crafts display and sales. Non retail uses such as greenhouse, crop and tree farming, wholesale nursery. Park and recreational uses that are passive in nature such as picknicking, arts and crafts workshops, cultural performances, etc. Minimum open area: 90%.”

The developer is pushing to make it high intensity commercial.

This will require that he alter the topography by bringing in 1,800 truckloads of fill dirt to raise the building pad by 4 feet. He’s proposing 5 buildings, the tallest at 35 feet.

This will change the neighborhood forever.

There are currently a number of businesses on Los Rios St. that are low-key, “mom and pop” type operations.  They close at 5pm. What is being proposed is different – eating and drinking establishments along with an unknown array of commercial uses.

Currently most business owners live on their properties.  If you’ve never experienced it you may not know that the Los Rios District gets even more magical at 5 o’clock when the shadows get long and the businesses shut down for the evening. The proposed project does not protect this time or this experience.

If this project is given the green light the zoning for Low Density Commercial will be completely rewritten to fit the Project. The developer will be writing this “ protected neighborhood’s zoning laws.

There is a petting zoo across the street with almost the exact same zoning.  The precedent will give them standing to have their own zoning rewritten. It would only be a matter of time before an ambitious developer could transform remaining residential properties into high density condo developments.

Where does this end?

This project violates the General Plan by allowing “commercial sprawl” to occur outside of the downtown commercial center. In 1974 the City Council declared the Los Rios area “was an area containing structures of historic significance”; “the Council declared that these structures and the entire Los Rios area ought to be protected and preserved for posterity.”

This project is a slap in the face to the current zoning, previous Council’s efforts to preserve the area, and especially to the residents living adjacent to this proposed project.

When the developer presented the plans to the City in  2016, he had been promoting the project for well over a year and a half to City Council Members and to City Officials. He garnered support from local business owners and some of the local residents as well.

Some residents envision themselves as tenants in the new shopping center and have aligned with the developer.

E-mails provided through the Freedom of Information Act  illuminate a very cozy relationship between city council members and the developer with birthday presents being exchanged and dinners shared.  Professional boundaries have been transgressed at the expense of the constituents who have the right to assume they are being fairly and impartially represented.

Not surprisingly the Council voted to “study” an amendment to the Los Rios Specific Plan in October of 2016. This was the first official step made to get the project approved.

Since then, it has been considered by several advisory committees, the most recent being Design Review. Stunningly this project hasn’t even been through CEQA and a Traffic Study, but the discussion included how much they liked the new color of red for the Barn structure. The process is a complete mess and standard sequencing has been thrown out the window.

Here is how neighboring cities usually process building plans.

First the plans go to zoning for review to determine if they comply with building setbacks, allowed height, required parking, open space and lot coverage.

At this point the project is also reviewed by Public Works, the Fire Department, and Water quality. Once it is determined that it all complies with the zoning it progresses on to CEQA and an EIR study is done along with a traffic study, geotechnical, hydrology, grading and any other special studies that are needed.

Oh, did I mention that the property sits in a FEMA floodplain next to Trabuco Creek ?

Next would be a CUP (conditional use permit)  if there isn’t one for the intended use at that location. After all of these standards are met, the project would have story pole staking in place for 2 weeks. Only then would it be subject to Design Review.

San Juan does it backwards allowing for incremental approval before it’s determined if the project as a whole will be allowed. This all works in the developer’s favor.

Skipping the important step of Story Pole Staking which allows everyone in town to see exactly how big of an impact the proposed development will have on the community also works in the developer’s favor – especially when the project seeking approval is too big.

There was a motion made at the last Council meeting to require the story pole staking but the Council is in so deep with the developer that it wasn’t even voted on.

All of our neighboring cities find this to be a very useful tool for their constituents.  But our city officials came up with creatively amusing objections “the stakes could blow over, or somebody could alter them, and we just don’t like the way they look.” Another loss for regular citizens.

Which brings me to the next aspect of this selling off of San Juan Capistrano. There were three Council members who ran on a slow growth slate in the election three years ago. One, Pam Patterson, has lived up to her campaign promises. The other two, Derek Reeve and Kerry Ferguson flipped their positions and have voted for the study to amend the Los Rios Specific Plan.

This project should have been denied when it was first submitted because it did not comply with any aspect of the current zoning. Instead the Staff submitted a report that slyly left out the “Purpose and Intent” of the Specific Plan, and proceeded not to inform the most affected adjacent neighbors that this would be an Agenda item.

The Staff’s excuse was that the postage meter did not print on the notice cards to all of the residents, and they were returned.  Unequal notice to residents, and major omissions in the Staff report – another disadvantage to ordinary San Juan citizens.  There is an undeniable pattern here.

Our strategy at this point is to recall the two Council members – Reeve and Ferguson – who voted to move this project into the approval process. We want the recall to be successful BEFORE Reeve and Ferguson have a chance to vote on it. The developer is confident that he has their votes.

In a letter from the developer to the city Senior Planner (also obtained through a FOIA request) he (the developer) seems to understand how time for citizen input could be dangerous.

“David, I’m getting nervous that time is slipping away. Are you available to discuss timeline tomorrow.”

It is important to me the current council hears this project by mid next year.” That letter was August 2, 2017.”

Mid next year is almost here. We are collecting signatures now!!

You can follow us on Facebook at “Save Los Rios Historic District” and go to our website SaveLosRiosHistoricDistrict.org

That will take you to a series of videos that we made on a variety of negative impacts that this mall would have on San Juan Capistrano.

You can also reach us at info@savelosrioshistoricdistrict.org

You deserve to be heard.

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"Admin" is just editor Vern Nelson or associate editor Greg Diamond sharing something that they mostly didn't write themselves, but think you should see. Before December 2010, "Admin" may have been former blog owner Art Pedroza.