San Juan Capistrano

“Very High Density” Development
a Betrayal of Public Trust?

By Kim Lefner

Some of you may remember the campaign in 2008 to convince us to increase our property taxes to purchase "open space" in the City of San Juan. The City’s Open Space Committee marketed the idea that purchasing "open space" in town would protect it from development, and therefore from increased traffic.

My recollection is that we were offered examples of five properties, one of which was the agricultural Vermeulen property next to the Sports Park, currently used as the Armstrong Nursery growing grounds. To many residents, the idea of taxing ourselves for an “open space” bond was attractive, considering that traffic was so impacted (now even more so). Who wouldn’t want to protect that or another property in our lovely historic town from high-density development, right?
Proposed development includes 524 units and 41-bed medical facility*

However, shortly after more than 70% of San Juan residents voted to tax property owners $30 million to purchase "open space", the City’s "Open Space Subcommittee" which included a couple of developers, arranged to serve as "real property negotiators" for the purchase of open space with our public monies. Many residents believed they would negotiate the purchase of the Vermeulen property to save it from development. Instead, we found out - after the fact - that the negotiators used our money to purchase "open space" outside our city limits, from the Rancho Mission Viejo Company whose CEO is a friend and former business partner of the lead negotiator.

Five years later, community concerns about saving agricultural land from development have come home to roost in the proposed “Very High Density” development on the Vermeulen property. According to City documents*, the proposed Spieker Development project is 423 units in two and three-story buildings (the only other three-story structure in San Juan is the parking structure downtown) plus a 60-unit residential care facility and a 41-bed medical facility on 35 acres.
When asked about potential traffic impacts, Spieker Development representative Troy Bourne was quick to point out that this is a “seniors community” and many of them don’t drive. However, that does not account for the ones who do (assuming even half drive), or their visitors plus the employees to service the facilities. The planning documents indicate approximately 600 parking spaces.

Pam Zamoscianyk, a 20-year resident of San Juan, takes issue with the required re-zoning of the property; “My biggest issue is re-zoning the agriculture/commercial land to VERY HIGH DENSITY zoned land for residences with a medical facility. This clashes with our farm and open land heritage that makes this city special,” she said.

Zamoscianyk also expressed concern about traffic and other impacts to the community, “I believe SJC already has severe traffic issues and building a small city within our city, of 527 residences on [35] acres doesn’t make sense. Also, I feel our small town’s infrastructure - water, sewer, and emergency services - will be pushed over capacity,” she said.

Resident James Durward is also concerned about the impacts; especially to our water supply. “I want to know the water source for this huge extra need, which residents are being rationed to protect,” he said.

Durward says that traffic is yet another cause for concern. “There’s already planning approval across Del Obispo [the Scalzo property development] for 30-plus new homes, and now our council shows evidence of approving 400 MORE residences on agricultural land that in this case, should be left in place.”

I questioned developer’s rep Bourne about the location for this seniors community, given its proximity to the nearest hospital (Mission). The medical facility on-site will be for long-term care only; medical emergencies must be transported to the hospital. I asked him, what happens when a resident has a life-threatening emergency and a freight train or a “ghost train” is passing through town, and a long line of traffic is backed up at Del Obispo and Camino Capistrano as is often the case? There is no way around the traffic in our bisected town. He had no answer.

Neighbor Barbara Szemenyi, a 45-year resident of San Juan, believes the town is already over-developed and stressed the need to protect the community from the proposed development. “[San Juan Capistrano] is an historical treasure that needs to be protected, not over-developed", she said.

The City Council majority’s approval of a General Plan Amendment in preparation for re-zoning the property from “commercial agricultural” to “Very High Density” has residents like Szemenyi questioning whose interests the council majority is representing. "The citizens of San Juan Capistrano are the employers; our city officials are our employees,” said Szemenyi. “We should be, and need to be, in control of the impacts to our community and quality of life, not the other way around."

Zamoscianyk agrees. “Bottom line is, there’s a mistrust happening. I feel like the residents haven’t been told anything about this development and re-zoning the land, yet [the developer] already set up offices and are taking reservations. Our community needs to know San Juan Capistrano is the oldest continuously inhabited town in California. We live here because of this heritage, its open space and the agricultural environment that brought us here nearly 20 years ago,” she said.

The developer confirmed that they had not yet purchased the property, which still requires a re-zone by a City Council majority. “The way to achieve our control is to, whenever possible, attend Planning Commission and City Council meetings to keep informed, and to speak out when we feel we must, to preserve our community’s well being,” said Szemenyi.


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