San Juan Capistrano

                    Commission to Explore More Public Access  
                                     to Eastern Open Space 

                                                                       By Kim Lefner

 After six years and numerous requests to open up the publicly owned but privately controlled “Riding Park” property to the general public, the issue will finally be discussed by the City Parks and Recreation Commission at their meeting on December 21.  

Background
The problem began in 2008, when City leaders “sold” voters on the concept of taxing themselves to buy open space in the City of San Juan Capistrano. In 2009, San Juan voters approved a $30 million bond to purchase open space in town, and property taxes were increased to pay for the purchase.

What City leaders did next was inexplicable. They allowed three private citizens (one of whom is friends and former business partners with the seller) to negotiate behind closed doors the purchase of property outside the City, from the Rancho Mission Viejo Company (“the Ranch”).

As the deal was negotiated behind closed doors, the public was not aware of what the City was buying with their tax dollars. To make maters worse, nearly half of the property was already protected open space thus obviating the need to buy this property to "protect it" from development. The planned development of up to 14,000 homes and approximately 5 million square feet of commercial and retail space is continuing across the street from the "open space".  

“Open Space” is restricted
The biggest bone of contention is that the most valuable and usable portion of the 132-acre “open space” property, the approximate 70-acre “Riding Park”, is leased to a private, for-profit equestrian events promoter. The company, Blenheim Equisports, uses the publicly owned property to generate substantial revenue from equestrian events. As a result, the public is only “granted” access to the property that they own six days per year.

Possible bond violations
One potentially serious problem for the City is the fact that a “Public Purpose Bond” was used to purchase the open space. Because it is tax-exempt, it has restrictions on the amount of revenue that can be generated on the property (see definition of “Public vs. Private Purpose Bonds” at end of article). It also restricts the percentage of public property that can be allocated (leased) to a private business. As stated previously in the CCS, we believe the City may have violated the terms of the bond by leasing such a large portion of the property to a for-profit company that generates revenue far in excess of what is allowed by a Public Purpose Bond – especially when such lease restricts the general public from accessing or using the property. The CCS has joined residents in questioning whether this arrangement constitutes a gift of public funds.
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