City Sued over Riding Park / San Juan Creek Violations

Several PVC pipes such as this one appeared to drain
contaminated water from the Riding Park into San Juan Creek.
Although the pipes have since been removed, the amount of
contaminated waste water drained into the creek is unknown.
For many months, Parks and Recreation Commissioners and the San Diego Water Board had made the city aware of environmental damage to San Juan Creek at the Riding Park. The City obfuscated remediation of the damage until ultimately, a non-profit environmental protection organization took legal action in an effort to compel the city to resolve the many violations. On June 2nd a lawsuit was filed in OC Superior Court against the City and Blenheim Facilities Management by the Orange County Coastkeepers. The lawsuit alleges 1,825 violations accumulated over a number of years, related to contamination of and damage to San Juan Creek at the city-owned Riding Park, Reata Park and the Arizona Crossing in San Juan Creek.

Allegations include deposit of unpermitted fill dirt into the creek, unpermitted drainage of contaminated water into the protected creek and unpermitted structures such as horse wash racks on the creek bank which allow contaminated water to flow into and pollute the creek.

City Given 60 Days Notice
On March 31st, the Coastkeepers sent a "Notice of Violations and Intent to File Suit Under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act" to the City and Blenheim Facilities Management. The warning notice states in part, "… Coastkeeper's investigations indicate an ongoing failure by the Notice Recipients to comply with the requirements of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act at the Riding Park, Reata Park, and Arizona Crossing properties. Individual examples of failure to comply with the requirements of the Clean Water Act [are listed within the notice]… including creek contamination and volumes of soil allegedly pushed into the creek with heavy equipment …" (see a copy of the Coastkeeper’s letter on our website at:

After giving the City and Blenheim 60 days to negotiate remediation of the violations, they met with City Manager Ben Siegel, an attorney hired by the city to protect its interests, several city employees and Melissa Brandes of Blenheim, in an effort to resolve the violations.

The Coastkeepers however, were disappointed in the city’s apparent lack of understanding of just how serious the damage is, or their role in it. They failed to reach an agreement and according to the Coastkeepers, the City and Blenheim continue to violate the Clean Water Act. On June 2nd, a lawsuit was filed in OC Superior Court against the City and Blenheim Facilities Management.

Lawsuit Validates Commissioners’ Concerns
The allegations by the Coastkeepers vindicate city commissioners who filed complaints with the city about on-going code violations at the Riding Park and damage to San Juan Creek. The two Parks, Recreation, Senior and Youth Services Commissioners initially expressed concern about the numerous violations at the Riding Park and the creek in July of 2016. In the following months, the city manager’s written reports and claims that all violations had been resolved were not supported by the evidence. Commissioners continued to document on-going problems including contaminated water and fill dirt being deposited into the creek. When the commissioners attempted to follow up on the violations by asking for a status report from staff to the Parks and Recreation commission however, their agenda items were repeatedly removed and/or blocked.

City Manager’s Continued Denials
The multiple violations listed in the lawsuit contradict City Manager Siegel’s repeated denials about on-going violations. In several city memos, reports and in a city Press Release dated April 11, 2017, Siegel claims that soil and debris deposited into the creek is a result of "storm activity". The Coastkeepers say that the city/Blenheim failed to secure the proper permits for grading that the city claims was necessary due to the alleged storm activity. The city manager's denials ring hollow in light of heavy equipment at the Riding Park/San Juan Creek which has been observed and photographed in recent months, after the storm season activity had ended. Heavy equipment tire tracks leading to the creek bank into which large volumes of soil and debris had been deposited were also observed and photographed on numerous occasions by residents and commissioners, including during dry summer months. In some cases, mature trees appear to have been plowed under and/or buried under soil and debris including trash, concrete, and sod.

Whistleblowers Allege Retaliation for Filing Code Complaints

In July 2016, commissioners from the City’s Parks, Recreation, Senior and Youth Services Commission were invited to tour the publicly-owned Riding Park at the Eastern open space. The property is managed for the city by Blenheim Facilities Management, which also uses the Riding Park for their other business, Blenheim Equisports, a private equestrian show business.

Concerned by the condition of the property, one of the commissioners submitted a complaint to City Code Enforcement about what she believed were health and safety issues.

Photos (later printed in the CCS) show electrical wiring and extension cords strung through dry trees and brush, extension cords buried underground to serve as electrical conduits to multiple RVs, waste water draining to the creek from RVs and from horse wash racks, extension cords affixed to the sides of plywood panels and strung overhead in makeshift hay storage units, trailers which appeared were being used as permanent residences, and soil, concrete, trash and sod that had been deposited into the creek.

City code enforcement eventually cited Blenheim for most of the conditions, but advised the commissioner to file a complaint with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) about the fire safety concerns. Following is an account of what occurred next, based on documentation obtained by the CCS.

Selling Out San Juan


San Juan’s General Plan is being threatened. The very roots of the rurally founded San Juan community are being snipped off one at a time. The State of California requires all cities to have and follow a General Plan. The town’s General Plan is literally defined by the California Supreme Court as the "constitution for future development." The General Plan is there for all citizens to understand, work with, and rely upon - it is the guiding light.

The preamble to San Juan’s General Plan says:

"The underlying philosophy of the General Plan should be to preserve the present character of a small village-like community with abundant open space.

A community that recognizes the contributions of its historic and cultural foundations, is in harmony with its natural valley-like setting, as defined by its creeks and ridgelines, and strives to embrace unique solutions to issues that may arise in the future, to ensure that this vison continues to be carried forth for future generations. (Introduction, Page 1 of the 2002 General Plan)."

San Juan has a long history of cherishing it values and incorporating them into the General Plan. In 1965 the city adopted its first General Plan with a goal to become a large  urban community of 84,000 ( the population is 37,000 today.) In 1974 a group of concerned citizens did not believe a large urban community was the best for San Juan. These people advocated and pushed for the adoption of a new General Plan "emphasizing our small village-like character, preservation of major ridgelines, setting aside of 30% of the city as open space, maintaining a rural equestrian lifestyle and establishment of goals and policies for the future management of growth in the community." * Because of the activism of this special group of citizens in the early 1970’s we now have something special in our town. We are special because we stand out as a historic, low density, rural, and equestrian community in a sea of urban and suburban sprawl.

Council members Farias & Maryott - Voting Record

SJC Residents Deserve to Know Real Impacts from Development

 Guest Column
                                                                            By Michael Laux

There is a lot of talk about the size and impact of various development proposals in the downtown area. The plans are available on the City website, and the residents are encouraged to study them to understand what these projects will look like. There is a problem with this.

For most people, including those in the building trade, it’s challenging to determine what the size and mass will be in relation to the surrounding structures, and the neighborhood in general. Currently the City of San Juan Capistrano does not require that development plans include "shadow elevations" (where surrounding buildings are drawn to scale in the background), or "story pole staking".

Story pole staking (SPS) is probably the best way for a community to see exactly the mass and scale of the building(s) being proposed. You’ve probably seen a certified SPS array with strings and streamers that show how big a building will be in its actual setting. All of our neighboring cities require it for commercial buildings (some for residential). It takes all of the guesswork out of trying to take two-dimensional plans and imagine what it will look like in three dimensions on the building site.

City Proposes Raiding Street Repair Fund to Close Budget Gap

At the June 6, 2017 City Council meeting, City Manager Ben Siegel disclosed a projected $1.2 million budget deficit in the ending balance for Fiscal Year 2017.
$600,000 earmarked for pothole and other street repairs
was instead deposited into the general fund to
plug a $1.2 million deficit.

City employee costs account for approximately $12 million of the $27 million annual budget. The city manager’s compensation package with benefits totals $312,000 per year. Siegel also created a new position for an "Assistant City Manager" which costs taxpayers more than $256,000 per year with benefits. In addition, the city manager added another Administrative Specialist/Assistant position with a compensation package of approximately $100,000, with benefits. The total compensation for just the city manager’s office alone totals approximately $668,000, not including monies spent on new furniture, including flat screen TVs. 

Siegel however, blames a majority of the problem on rising compensation costs for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) contract, which increased approximately 10% over the prior year. It increased by $476,000 in 2017 for a total cost of approximately $10 million.

According to the city manager’s budget agenda item, in addition to the Sheriffs’ contract increase, sales tax is forecast at $362,000 less than anticipated, and development fees/ charges are projected to be $251,000 less due to the delay of projects that were expected to move forward in 2016-17. The City also experienced an increase in animal control costs of $130,000, and $50,000 in storm drain costs.

To solve this shortfall, the City Manager proposes to move $600,000 to the General fund from the "Landfill Mitigation Fund" the City Council negotiated with the County to remediate impacts to Ortega Highway from trash trucks. The City Council had directed that the fund proceeds be earmarked for maintenance of City roads and streets.

SJC Equestrian Coalition "Economic Study" Qestionable At Best

                              Failure to Provide Backup Data Undermines Validity of Study
                                                                             Guest Column
                                                                                  By Ted Shown

The San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition presented an economic impact study to the City Council on June 21, 2016 asserting that the Equestrian community brings in more than $50 million to the San Juan Capistrano community each year. Equestrian economic studies are not uncommon; a Google search will find many such reports for communities across the country.
Having written many economic reports in my career, primarily in the aviation and logistics field, I was interested to know the methodology by which the $50,000,000 figure was arrived at. I discovered that although the results had been presented to the City Council and other groups, the actual report has not been made available despite being requested. 

According to the press release, the study was conducted by Dr. Raymond Sfeir, Associate Dean of Economics and Management Science at Chapman University. I reached out to Dr. Sfeir requesting a copy of his report. His response was that the report belonged to the Equestrian Coalition and I should request a copy from them. I contacted the Equestrian Coalition and learned that they had decided not to release the report. I was told by an Equestrian Coalition board member that Dr. Sfeir attended the meetings where the results were presented and answered questions, but that they would not release the study itself. 

City’s, Farias’ Actions Called into Question in Recall Attempt

One of the proponents of a recall movement against Mayor Pro Tem Sergio Farias called into question the timing of Farias’ apparent about-face on the SDG&E expansion project. The proponent also questions the appropriateness of the city manager’s actions relative to the release to the public of an unverified petition.

 After pledging during his campaign to fight the SDG&E expansion project "with whatever it takes", proponents say Farias changed his tune once elected. They pointed to a number of statements Farias made publicly after the election, such as that residents would "… have to accept the reality" that the expansion project in their neighborhood could not be fought. Farias made additional statements indicating his position had changed say proponents, including; "… campaign promises can’t always be kept", and telling his constituents, "… you guys need to go to San Francisco and complain to the CPUC [California Public Utilities Commission]." 

"His own statements prompted the recall," proponent Dawn Fusco stated. "After promising the voters that he would do ‘whatever it takes to fight the expansion’, he almost immediately threw in the towel, telling us that we need to just accept that it was going to happen," Fusco said. "He did not vote with the council majority to retain an outside attorney to fight the expansion until after proponent signatures were being collected for the recall," she added.

In fact, prior to a March 7th special closed session council meeting at which hiring an outside attorney to fight the project was to be discussed, a number of residents addressed the council. The residents urged the council to protect them by hiring attorney Michael Aguirre, who has had success in fighting the CPUC. Councilmember Pam Patterson made a motion to report out in open session who voted which way [about hiring Aguirre]. The motion was seconded by Mayor Kerry Ferguson. But Farias joined Council members Derek Reeve and Brian Maryott in voting to shield from the public the result of the vote, and the motion failed.

The council did not report out in open session a vote on hiring attorney Aguirre at that time, which indicates that they did not vote on the item. Had they done so, the law requires them to report in open session the result of any votes taken in closed door sessions (if not who voted for what). "Why would [councilmember Farias] want his vote kept from the public, unless he did not support hiring the outside attorney at that time?" asked Fusco. Farias also stated publicly at another council meeting that hiring the outside attorney "… wouldn’t likely change the outcome" of the CPUC decision, which recall proponents say runs counter to his pledge to vigorously defend their neighborhoods from the negative impacts of the expansion project.

It was not until nearly two months later - after a petition began circulating to collect recall proponent signatures - that the council reported out in open session a unanimous vote to hire attorney Aguirre, say proponents.

Fusco also questions the city manager’s actions which led to the media being informed about the rejection of the initial recall petition - before she was even made aware of it. "I dropped off the petition in a sealed envelope addressed to the city clerk on a Friday afternoon, and learned that [City Clerk Maria Morris] was gone for the day. By Monday, I was being contacted by the media about the city clerk’s rejection of the petition – before I even knew about it. How did the media know about this before I did? Someone obviously leaked it to the media."

City Manager Ben Siegel sent an email to Fusco, explaining that he was the one who opened the envelope addressed to City Clerk Morris. The city manager admitted that after opening the envelope, he called Farias, who immediately went to City Hall and took a picture of the unverified recall petition. By Monday morning, the picture of the unverified petition with all of the proponents’ signatures was posted on Councilmember Derek Reeve’s Facebook page, on another publication’s website, and Fusco was contacted by two reporters.

Recall proponents maintain that it is a matter of trust and values – or lack of them. "This is about Sergio Farias’ betrayal of his campaign promises. It didn’t take him long, once elected, to renege [on them]," Fusco said.
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