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.
The proposal to sell the South Coast Farms property is similarly clouded by sentimentalism about San Juan’s “agricultural heritage”. Preservation, in this instance, is assured by zoning and Measure X, which requires a majority vote of the residents to remove the “open space” restriction and re-purpose the property. The property is otherwise a liability to the City, and it may be sold to remove this liability without risk to its zoning designation.

South Coast Farms is a legitimate agricultural operation. It survives because of the protective City zoning and open space designation. For this reason, the farm is more like a lifestyle museum (a characteristic it shares with the Ecology Center). It provides little practical capacity to feed all of us. Because of the restrictions on the property, the small farm use survives. In fact, this may be the only allowed use, so like the Congdon House, why not sell it and be free of future preservation costs?

Jim Reardon is a long-time resident of San Juan Capistrano, and an elected Trustee of the Capistrano Unified School District. 

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