Capistrano Open Space: Closed to Public!

$27.5 MILLION FOR NOTHING

Why is “open space” officially closed?


The recent revelation that the public is prohibited from accessing the polo grounds “open space” property is astounding. Although every property owner in San Juan Capistrano is now being taxed $32 per $100,000 of assessed value to pay for this “open space”, the public cannot set foot on it as long as it’s under lease to a third party. The current lease is for two years. Councilman Mark Nielsen, who championed the acquisition of this land, has expressed his desire to renew the lease to continue accommodating exclusive equestrian events. Mr. Nielsen further explained that soccer and baseball leagues are especially prohibited from using this property as they would “ruin the fields” for equestrian events. Sports leagues and recreational equestrian residents who encouraged our City to buy this “open space” believing that they would be able to use it are thus left empty handed - except of course, for the bill. At $27.5 million, that’s a pretty hefty bill!

So how did this happen?

Last year, the Open Space Committee (OSC) led by Councilman Nielsen, convinced the public to tax themselves to “preserve and enhance open space in the City of San Juan Capistrano”. The committee identified prospective open space parcels in town and initiated a City-funded marketing campaign to promote a bond measure that would support the purchase of these parcels, ostensibly to protect them from development. The polo grounds property was not  even on the list, perhaps because it wasn’t within the city limits.

Under then-Mayor Nielsen, the OSC appointed a “Finance Subcommittee” consisting of three OSC members to serve as “real property negotiators” on behalf of the City. This group, consisting of Brad Gates, Tom Lunnen and Dick Paulsen, negotiated the polo grounds property purchase behind closed doors. The public wasn’t provided any information about it until after the agreement was signed, again behind closed doors.

The lack of transparency is problematic but what’s even more troubling is the “deal” they negotiated (see the purchase agreement at: www.sjcopen.org). It’s so one-sided in favor of the seller that it raises questions about the nature of the negotiators’ relationships to the seller. We’ll never know however, because under Nielsen’s leadership the negotiators were exempted from filing the conflict of interest disclosure forms required by members of every other city committee and commission, including the City Council itself.

Disturbingly, Nielsen is now pushing for the OSC to prepare and implement a Master Plan for “management of open space”, to include millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants for such things as “habitat restoration”.  Of course, these grants will have conditions, and a source of local matching funds has yet to be identified.

There’s only one solution to recover from this imbalance of power; treat the Open Space Committee as the ad-hoc committee it was intended to be; thank the committee members for their years of service and disband it. The management of open space should be turned back over to city staff and to the Parks, Recreation and Equestrian Commission which was created to oversee such activities.  The now "land-poor" City Council should then create a new committee formed from its elected members to determine what City services shall be sacrificed in order that there be sufficient money available to make the acquired Open Space truly open to the public.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This should have been made known to the voters before we were asked to approve it.

Maybe we should target this Nielsen guy in the next election.

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