San Juan Capistrano

 The First 60 Days
New City Council Initiates Change in Direction

By Kim Lefner 

Supported by two unprecedented back-to-back referendums, the council majority of Mayor Derek Reeve, Mayor Pro Tem Pam Patterson, Councilmembers Kerry Ferguson and Roy Byrnes began their new term by reversing the previous council’s approval of two massive development projects. Critics said the developments would add too much traffic to already congested streets, and strain on limited resources such as water.

 Here are just a few of the actions taken by the council in the first 60 days:

Laguna Glen / Spieker Development – The proposed “retirement village” consisted of more than 400 housing units and a medical facility with approximately 100 beds in over 725,000 square feet of buildings. The project was proposed on 30+ acres of the “Vermeulen Ranch” property where Armstrong Nursery’s growing grounds are currently located. It required a re-zone from “commercial agribusiness” to “specific plan” to allow for the high-density residential/institutional development which included a mix of one, two and three-story buildings.

In September 2014 the council majority of Sam Allevato, Larry Kramer and John Taylor voted to re-zone the Vermeulen property over community outcry about the impacts from such massive development in the middle of town. Their vote galvanized residents who quickly collected nearly twice the required number of signatures for a referendum that allowed the new council majority to overturn the previous council’s decision in a 4-1 vote, with Sam Allevato opposed.

San Juan Hotel & Villas / Urban Village Development – While many residents agree that a small “boutique” hotel downtown would be an asset, this project is controversial due to its inclusion of residential units which violate the General Plan, and its non-conformance with the Historic Town Center Master Plan. Despite warnings from the City Attorney and the City’s Planning Director about its legality, the outgoing council majority voted to approve it anyway and did so at three in the morning. Their decision resulted in a lawsuit and another successful referendum (see “Outgoing Council’s Vote Sparks Lawsuit and Referendum” in this issue). The incoming council majority voted to overturn the previous council’s approval in a 4-1 vote, with Sam Allevato voting against.

“Ghost Train” Traffic – After years of public frustration over traffic backed up at the Del Obispo railroad crossing, a fix is finally in the works thanks to the new council majority. Resident Clint Worthington, a locomotive train engineer with Union Pacific, had addressed the council numerous times over the past several years about how the “Ghost Train” effect could be eliminated. “The fix is simple,” Worthington said. “The crossing gates are triggered when a train is approaching the station at too high a rate of speed. If they simply reduce their speed, the gates will not be triggered, the traffic does not back up nearly as much and the community is still just as safe – in fact, probably even safer, given the reduced train speed.”

  At the October 2014 council meeting, when the Orange County Transportation Authority (“OCTA”) acknowledged that no steps had been taken to resolve the Ghost Train issue despite numerous requests over several years, Councilman Roy Byrnes was joined by Mayor Pro Tem Pam Patterson and Councilmember Kerry Ferguson in meetings with Metrolink to facilitate a reduction in train speed on the approach to the San Juan station so that the crossing gates will no longer be triggered.   

On February 9, Metrolink initiated testing of speed reductions, which the rail authority will adopt for southbound trains stopping to pick up passengers at the San Juan station.

New City Attorney – The banning of newspapers on public property by previous Council majority members Sam Allevato, Larry Kramer and John Taylor, the estimated $70,000 expense they incurred in defense of their actions and the overall increase in legal fees in 2013-2014 were just a few of the reasons for seeking proposals for new legal representation to replace City Attorney Hans Van Ligten and his employer, the law firm of Rutan & Tucker.

The City Council voted 4-1, with Sam Allevato opposed, to solicit Requests for Proposals from attorneys to represent the City. The time limit for solicitation, review and interview of applicants is a total of 5 weeks from the February 3 City Council meeting.

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