The Riding Park: Open Space or Commercial Business?

     Serious questions raised about the use/abuse of Open Space

Did SJC residents vote for Open Space for use by the general public, or did they vote for a for-profit commercial equestrian business on Open Space? That was the basis of a discussion at the last two Parks and Recreation Commission meetings. Discussion also included the following issues:


· Conflict of interest

Melissa Brandes of Blenheim Facilities Management was contracted by the city to manage the 70-acre “Riding Park” (part of the Open Space purchased by SJC taxpayers at Ortega and La Pata). However, Brandes works simultaneously as VP of Marketing for Blenheim Equisports, an equestrian events company co-owned by her father, RJ Brandes. Thus, Blenheim Facilities Management rents fields to its other entity, Blenheim Equisports.                    

· SJC taxpayers restricted from using the property

    Blenheim Facilities Management office at the publicly
owned Riding Park is pictured above, with Blenheim
 Equisports "Showpark" offices located in the building
 in the background. Questions raised include why the
two related entities are allowed to both manage and
largely monopolize the open space for money-making
   equestrian events serving mostly out-of-town equestrians

 Because Blenheim Facilities Management gives the lion’s share of event dates to Blenheim Equisports, commissioners questioned whether this amounts to a monopoly, pointing out that the company rents fields essentially to themselves in order to generate significant profits for their events company, while restricting the use by SJC taxpayers who pay the mortgage on the open space property (approximately $2 million per year) through increased property taxes.                                   








 · Eliminating competition for Riding Park field rentals 
San Juan sports teams are supposed to be given priority for field rentals however, property manager Blenheim Facilities Management charges field rental fees that are so steep (four times higher than field rentals of other city parks) that most soccer and other sports groups are priced out of the Riding Park. This in turn frees up more event dates for her own company to continue to generate profits. In addition, soccer groups have been charged up to $7 per vehicle for parking at the Riding Park, while parking for equestrian events is often free.

  · No-bid contract  
City code states that Professional Services contracts amounting to more than $125,000 per year must be put out to bid. There are three exceptions to this rule however, Blenheim does not appear to meet the definition for exception. Records indicate that no bids were solicited or obtained for management of the Riding Park open space property; the contract appears to have been simply granted to Blenheim.

 · Possible code violations

Photos taken at the Riding Park during a recent tour were shared with the Parks, Recreation and Youth Services Commission at their July 18 meeting. The photos depict what appear to be code violations, health and safety issues and conditions prohibited by Blenheim’s management contract (see "Riding Park Powerpoint presentation - July 2016" under Community Links to the right).

 

Guest Column: Don't be Fooled – Let’s Press for Real Solutions for Ortega!

                                                   By Mayor Pro Tem Kerry Ferguson


The original plan submitted by Rancho Mission Viejo Company (“RMV Co.”) to the County was to build 5,000 homes east of San Juan Capistrano, leading the County to take an important east-west arterial road near Avery Parkway off the County map.

In 2000 however, the RMV Co. increased the number of homes they wanted to build to 14,000 but instead of putting the east-west arterial back on the map, they pushed for widening Ortega as a solution for the greatly increased congestion. In San Juan Capistrano, there was understandable fear that our history-rich village would be overrun by a new community to the east and made little more than a doormat for the RMV Co’s increased traffic. In fact, former mayor Wyatt Hart once told the LA Times: "This city was well planned. Our problem is the other communities; widening would only push the city toward the failing point."

In the 2002, our city paid $200,000 for a Strategic Transportation Plan. Civil Engineer Les Card
looked at the entire region and made 11 recommendations which included putting the east-west arterial between the 73 Toll Road and Antonio Parkway; extending La Pata; adding lanes to I-5; adding another north-south route to I-5 south of San Clemente, and last on the list; adding two lanes to Ortega Highway. Mr. Card made it clear that widening the Ortega without committing to or completing the other 10 improvements would only add to our congestion.

Ortega - to Widen or Not to Widen; Readers Weigh In

                                          Letters to the Editor                                              

We received a number of emails about the letter and petition card mailed out to residents in SJC and surrounding communities, asking them to petition the SJC City Council to revisit the issue of widening Ortega Highway. Due to space limitations, we are only able to print a few of the letters below. Names have been withheld to protect privacy.           _____________________________________________________________

"By all means, stop the widening of Ortega. The Ranch and there friends need to stay out of trying to run our city (San Juan Capistrano). 

All they want is more homes and thus more dollars for there pockets. Let the Ranch find another way to get people into there new development, but not through widening Ortega." 

SJC resident

         ______________________________________________________________

 "As a resident and homeowner in SJC for the last 9 years it is my opinion that we should not widen Ortega Hwy in San Juan Capistrano. Having been born and raised in Orange County… I have seen many cities improve for the better and worse. How could building high ugly retaining walls, increasing speed limits in a residential district be for the good of our city? 

Yes, I agree with SJC residents that widening Ortega Hwy will undoubtedly turn it into a freeway on-and-off ramp for the Ranch's new city. The retaining walls will be an eyesore, the speed will increase, there will be added pollution causing allergies and other illnesses, and the traffic noise will be unbearable. The worst part are the dangers that will be thrust on… residents that live 100 Feet or less from Ortega Hwy, as well as the surrounding area. The quality of life as we know it will be gone forever. It will be altered dramatically for the children that play in their backyards and front, the teens that are new drivers will be at risk learning to maneuver around the busy interstate. Lastly, the hard earned dollars the residents invested in their homes will be devalued and lost. Some homes may be destroyed to make way for the widening as well as businesses. It will cause a frenzy exodus of residents forcing home prices down.

Laguna Beach, San Clemente, and Dana Point, have kept 35 mile speed limit in their cities with no ugly retaining walls despite the tremendous traffic that flows through. These surrounding cities mentioned were desirable destinations back since their conception and for me as a teen in the 70's as they still are today. These cities put their residents first and the integrity of the city not monetary gain. Yes, there's tons of traffic in our city, but widening Ortega Hwy, building a high cement retaining wall won't alleviate the traffic. Widening Ortega will increase traffic bringing noise and pollution while the cars whizz though our town to the freeway." 

SJC resident
         ________________________________________________________________

"I am absolutely AGAINST the widening of our beautiful Ortega Highway. I do not want more traffic, faster speeds, and especially a 25 ft. Sound wall! (Not to mention 14,000 additional homes, thousands of additional cars, and the traffic horrors that would be caused by the increases of semis, cement trucks, etc. to build said # of homes!) 

If County approval for 14,000 additional homes is DEPENDENT upon "adequate road capacity to handle the greatly increased traffic that will be generated" then let the Ranch spend their OWN money and put their arterial road at Avery or Junipero Serra or Stonehill. 

Ortega Highway and the adjacent residents already have been abused more than enough by the decision to let other cities use our dump. 

Add a signal, but do not widen!" 

30-year resident of San Juan Capistrano

       _________________________________________________________________

 "As a long time San Juan resident, I am disappointed in the actions of those who want to try and shove more Ranch traffic down our collective throats. It makes no sense to widen the Ortega – it will only invite more traffic and will increase the speed limit, making it less safe – not more safe like the Ranch cronies claim. 

Then there’s the visual blight; why on earth should we turn what is now a scenic road into a freeway on and off ramp for new development that’s not even in our town? This makes no sense…" 

SJC resident
             Efforts to Revisit Ortega Widening Stir Controversy

A mass mailing with a letter and a petition card urging residents to support the widening of Ortega Highway has some residents upset. Residents question why a handful of people would push so hard to have the council change its position after voting not to widen the scenic Ortega.
Residents are concerned that scenic Ortega
will be turned into a freeway on-and-off
ramp with 25' high sound walls
Emails we received about this issue pointed out inaccuracies and falsehoods in the letter that accompanied the stamped and pre-addressed petition card. Listed below are known facts about the issue, according to county and city records.

           Quick Facts about the Ortega Widening:
• The Rancho Mission Viejo Company, aka “The Ranch” received conditional entitlements from the county to develop 14,000 homes and 5 million square feet of commercial and retail on land they own east of San Juan.

• In order to get county approval to complete all phases of development, the Ranch must demonstrate they have adequate road capacity to handle the greatly increased traffic they will generate.

• If Ortega is widened by Cal Trans/OCTA, the taxpayers pick up the estimated $30 million tab. If the Ranch is forced to pay for their own road in another location, it will cost them tens of millions of dollars.

• An alternate location for the Ranch’s arterial road has already been studied, near Avery Parkway. It will direct the Ranch’s traffic away from Ortega.

• SJC Residents are concerned that widening Ortega would turn it into a freeway on-and-off ramp for the Ranch’s new city, with increased speed limit and sound walls up to 25 feet high.

• The new council majority voted “no” on the widening, instead encouraging the Ranch to pursue the alternate location for their arterial.

• CalTrans has already dropped all efforts to widen Ortega.

• Widening would make Ortega less safe, as it will increase the speed limit and add more traffic. SJC traffic engineer admitted to giving the council incorrect accident data for that stretch of Ortega. Traffic data proves the stretch of Ortega they claim is unsafe is currently four times safer than a comparable road.

                                Who is Behind the Letter?

By our estimates, the mass mailing with the letter and petition cards was an expensive undertaking. The letter and card claim "safety" is their primary concern. The claim makes no sense however, when widening Ortega would only increase the speed limit and add more traffic. In addition, the traffic consultant they claimed has been working on this issue since 2002 has in fact not studied it since then. He merely wrote a brief memo about the widening at the request of Ranch-friendly Councilman Sam Allevato.

So who else is behind this effort and why are they going to such lengths to pressure the council to widen the road? We did a little digging, and the results are listed below: 

Brad Gates – Close friend and former business partner of Ranch CEO Tony Moiso. Gates was the lead negotiator for the purchase of 132 acres of "open space" from Moiso at the corner of Ortega & La Pata, with $27.5 million in public bond money. Gates negotiated the deal entirely behind closed doors. The deal is so one-sided in favor of Moiso that it reads like a lease. As a result, residents are restricted from using the property they are paying for, while Moiso gets to use it for free for 50 years for his annual rodeo. Gates also negotiated that the "majority of the proceeds" from the rodeo be donated to his private "charity", the Open Space Foundation.

Eric  Sellas – Ranch executive who is married to Ranch CEO Tony Moiso’s daughter.

Buck Bean – Long time Ranch executive, retired from the Ranch after approximately 40 years.

Wyatt Hart – Ranch-friendly former SJC Mayor. Owns one of ten properties that could split $4.3 million in eminent domain taxpayer funding for a portion of relatively useless property along Ortega should it be widened.

Marlene Draper – Former Capistrano Unified Trustee who was targeted for recall by residents angry at mismanagement of school district finances. As a trustee, Draper voted to construct the
126,000 sf "Taj Mahal" headquarters building while children were crowded into moldy, 25-year-old portables. Draper served as a Director on Gates’ Open Space Foundation, and on the Open Space Committee that advocated for purchase of the "open space" property with public bond monies.



 
 
 
 
 
 


                   “Voters Rights Law” = “Voting by Race”
                                                            
                                                               By Donna Fleming 

There is nothing more corrosive to our form of government than to “hard wire” the election of lawmakers based entirely on their race/ethnicity. Nothing in the U. S. Constitution guarantees that Americans must vote by race. Yet that is what California Voting Rights Act (“CVRA”) lawsuits are about. That, and litigation fees.
 
A post on Facebook shows a check made payable to attorneys
Shenkman & Hughes for $4.3 million from the City of Palmdale.
The post below it reads "Picture me rolling bi*ches"  

Though I am a resident of San Juan Capistrano, I may no longer vote for the best candidate(s). If I live in District 5, I must cast my vote for a candidate from District 5 whether I believe they are the best qualified or not. As an American and resident of California, I no longer have a say in who runs my city. How can that be constitutional? How did this happen?
 
City Taxpayers Pay Legal Fees - Win or Lose
Our town has been targeted by an attorney who is exploiting a flaw in the legislation to force every city with a minority population to abandon voting at large and convert to voting by district. The CVRA requires mapping and districting to insure that minority populations are represented. The current law allows attorneys like Kevin Shenkman to collect legal fees - whether they win or lose. Shenkman finds a plaintiff who either lives in or moves to a city and claims that his/her voters’ rights are not represented. The plaintiff need not have even voted in that city. That is the case with Tina Auclair who shortly after moving to SJC, filed a lawsuit with co-plaintiff Louie Camacho, the husband her Regency Real Estate partner Anna Dickinson. Public voter records indicate that Auclair had not voted in an SJC election prior to filing the lawsuit. Her attorney stated in the broadcast media that San Juan was racist “at levels rarely seen in the 21st century.” Had Auclair lived here longer, she would have known that we have had two Hispanic mayors within the past 8 years, one of whom served twice as mayor.
              Sports Park Soccer Fields Need Improvements

A resident volunteer in youth sports recently urged the city council to give some TLC to city-owned soccer fields at the Sports Park. In a letter to the council, Tifani Brakke-Strane wrote;

 “I am a parent, soccer coach & community member of San Juan Capistrano. I am writing you regarding the very poor condition of our soccer fields at SJC Sports Park. We participate in tournaments all over South Orange County, and sadly, our fields are by far the worst we’ve seen. We love our town and do everything we can to support our local community, however, our fields are an embarrassment when we have to host other local cities, and often dangerous because of the condition of the fields. I am speaking on behalf of my team, my family and many friends in San Juan Capistrano, and hope you will seriously give this some much needed attention.  

Furthermore, in an additional effort to support our SJC community, I have been volunteering my time to plan and run the Swallows Classic Soccer Tournament on June 25 & 26 at the SJC Sports Park soccer fields. As a committee, we are all very concerned about the condition of our soccer fields. Teams are coming from all over to participate in this tournament, and they will be here for 2-3 days spending money on local hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions in San Juan Capistrano, but will likely be very disappointed when they show up on Saturday morning and see the condition of our fields. They’re spending a lot of money to participate in the tournament and spend a weekend in our town…we should be able to provide them with decent fields to play soccer on, or they just won’t come back, which would be shame for AYSO, and also all our local businesses who benefit from the business that weekend. We really need your help! Time is of the essence as our tournament is just a month away. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE look into this and help us get our fields in better shape. We live in a beautiful area, and our children deserve to play on nice fields… it’s the least we can do, particularly when all of our neighboring towns have nice soccer fields for their children to play on… “

The letter highlights the lack of attention given to the Sports Park fields, while the council is considering spending $500,000 to install a recycled water line to the Riding Park fields at Ortega & La Pata (see CCS - April edition).

Letters - Residents Say "No" to Ortega Widening

                         
Although we have received a number of emails about the letter, due to space limitations we are listing below only a few. Names are being withheld to protect privacy.
___________________________________________________________

“We were “served” with [the letter] from a bunch of unelected “kings” who are spending big money and confusing the facts like it’s an Olympic sport. Included is a pre-stamped [petition] card that we’re supposed to return to them.
The errors and omissions in the letter are really blatant… consider the following claims. My response (the truth) is listed below each claim:
 Claim:  “We face danger every day as we try to enter and exit our communities”

Would traffic flying by at 55 / two lanes in each direction somehow make that safer?
 Claim:  “Just recently a horrific crash between a car and a truck occurred and one person died”

If this is the accident I think it is, it happened just before the choke point and the person was allegedly speeding and drunk.  
 Claim:  “In 2015 alone…37 injury accidents occurred on Ortega or cross streets to Ortega”

99% of them were (far) East of our city’s boundaries, or nowhere near the “choke point” (This definition allows an accident on Rancho Viejo and other major streets - anywhere - to be counted…because they cross Ortega)
Claim:  “The city has been planning for years….but the 0.9 mile portion…leads to increased traffic accidents” 

That total lie has been disproven repeatedly by the city’s traffic engineer ~ yet it continues to be stated as “fact”
Claim:  “[Traffic engineers who conducted a study many years ago] … strongly recommend completion…as it ‘provides direct safety benefits’ ”

Isn’t this the same study that required a variety of other major events to occur – first;  (La Pata connection to San Clemente, etc.)
Claim:  “San Juan is in danger of LOSING the $10 million…Denying the Improvement Project will not stop traffic… this is a state highway, not a city road” 

Pretzel logic on display here.  If the city has no say, why bother with the city council? Could it be that the OCTA no longer supports this project and without the city demanding it, will not be done? As far as LOSING the $10 million, I’m far more upset I personally LOST the $380 million lottery on the $1 ticket I (never) bought.  These are the same people that think taxpayer-funded grants are endless sources of money to be spent – whether or not they make economic or logical sense.

What really upsets me is the signers to this letter. It’s positioned as if they’re the authorized representative for the tracts they live in. Not sure about you, but I certainly never elected Ted Rosenfeldt [one of the letter signers] to speak on my behalf.  
  __________________________________________________________________
  
"Who, exactly, are the “Neighbors for Ortega Highway Chokepoint Improvements” ~ or is this just another name for the Rancho Mission Viejo Company?”
__________________________________________________________________

Recently I received [a letter] asking me to sign a petition card to support the widening of the Ortega. To me, the letter makes no sense. How can widening a road, which will increase the speed limit, make it safer; especially when high-school drivers will be competing with multi-ton trash trucks at higher rates of speed? These people just need to accept that many of us residents like our semi-rural road the way it is…”
 ______________________________________________________________

"Thank you {council members Patterson, Ferguson and Perry] for halting the expansion of the Ortega Highway at it’s .8 of a mile-long 2-lane stretch.

 My property and house border that stretch of road, and you [council members] are the only ones giving a voice for those families that will suffer the greatest impact of a widening project, and those persons wanting to retain the natural beauty of the area. We who border this part of the highway don’t want to stare at a wall, feel imprisoned by a wall, nor hear the noise walls will cause by bouncing sounds between the them and the Northside hills. We don’t want to lose the large mature trees which line the highway, shade our yards, provide natural soundproofing and natural privacy. We don’t want to see the hillside carved and concrete lining this otherwise beautiful area.

The site for the High School was chosen despite this stretch of the road. It is not dangerous and cannot become more dangerous. More traffic is dangerous. With the State in a drought crisis, I believe there should be a moratorium on building now. I also believe that La Pata may ease many of the traffic problems (to the dump and the High School).

 Ex-sheriff Brad Gates expressed horror over a fatality on this stretch, but he failed to mention that fatality accident happened at 2:30 a.m. on the Easter Weekend. In all my 16 years living here, there has never been a fatality besides the recent sad one mentioned here, but not to be blamed on the width of the road or traffic delays.

The current level of traffic noise we are used to. We don’t want it doubled. Those who live here know how to deal with the traffic delays and, like anywhere else, planning ahead for it is a way of life. The delays are not all day every day – like anywhere else, the traffic increases only during rush hour. There are no safety issues.

I know [council members] are taking terrific hits over [their] stance; however, I remember [they] campaigned on that very platform and it was a big reason [they] were voted into office. I believe most people want to keep the integrity of the natural beauty of the highway. It is the entrance to our charming city, after all.

 Thank you for your efforts. "

Guest Column

                          Whole Council Fails to Get It Half Right                        

    Council's Unprecedented 20-year Lease to Ecology Center Sells City, Taxpayers Short

                                                                 By Jim Reardon

SJC resident Jim Reardon
 Facing a serious fiscal shortfall, the City of San Juan Capistrano announced it must tighten its budget to maintain essential services. The City Council conducted a budget workshop to ponder difficult choices. Unfortunately, a workshop is no solution, because shortsighted decisions made by the Council and staff all year long weight most heavily on city accounts.

Take the Council’s contradictory decision to extend the lease on the historic Congdon House to the Ecology Center for 20 years, while adding the surrounding South Coast Farms parcel to a list of properties to be sold. The Ecology Center lease may be the most expensive decision made in the term of this Council. Over the next two decades, Center Director Evan Marks will enjoy a gift of below-market rent ($2,000 a month), and will be allowed to conduct what amounts to a private business at the Congdon House. At the end of that period, assuming he hasn’t departed for greener environs, the costly $500,000 + taxpayer-funded improvements made by the City during restoration will be worn-out by use and the City will have the obligation to restore Congdon House again, a perpetual financial drag.


The simple solution is to sell the Congdon House to the Ecology Center. A hypothetical sale at $479,000 would result in the same $2000 per-month payment required of the lease. Fair-market price is higher still. The avoided cost of perpetual restoration is approximately $1 million over the life of the lease, whether or not Mr. Marks remains to the end to mesmerize councilmembers.

The cloudy issues of heritage and environmentalism have produced a financial decision adverse to the City taxpayers. By selling at market-value, the Council could improve the city’s financial picture by more than $1.5 million, and perhaps strengthen the Ecology Center at the same time. It isn’t too late to remedy this.
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