Selling Out San Juan


San Juan’s General Plan is being threatened. The very roots of the rurally founded San Juan community are being snipped off one at a time. The State of California requires all cities to have and follow a General Plan. The town’s General Plan is literally defined by the California Supreme Court as the "constitution for future development." The General Plan is there for all citizens to understand, work with, and rely upon - it is the guiding light.

The preamble to San Juan’s General Plan says:

"The underlying philosophy of the General Plan should be to preserve the present character of a small village-like community with abundant open space.

A community that recognizes the contributions of its historic and cultural foundations, is in harmony with its natural valley-like setting, as defined by its creeks and ridgelines, and strives to embrace unique solutions to issues that may arise in the future, to ensure that this vison continues to be carried forth for future generations. (Introduction, Page 1 of the 2002 General Plan)."

San Juan has a long history of cherishing it values and incorporating them into the General Plan. In 1965 the city adopted its first General Plan with a goal to become a large  urban community of 84,000 ( the population is 37,000 today.) In 1974 a group of concerned citizens did not believe a large urban community was the best for San Juan. These people advocated and pushed for the adoption of a new General Plan "emphasizing our small village-like character, preservation of major ridgelines, setting aside of 30% of the city as open space, maintaining a rural equestrian lifestyle and establishment of goals and policies for the future management of growth in the community." * Because of the activism of this special group of citizens in the early 1970’s we now have something special in our town. We are special because we stand out as a historic, low density, rural, and equestrian community in a sea of urban and suburban sprawl.

Our community has worked very hard for the last 40+ years to create, maintain, and protect our rural character and open spaces. We have gone so far as to vote upon ourselves two separate open space bond measures so we could publicly acquire permanent open spaces. In 1990 the city passed the first of the open space bond initiatives with an overwhelming approval by 74% of the voters. The result of these open space bond initiatives are the Sports Park, the Northwest Open Space, and the recently added Reata Park and Riding Center.

The City has clear rules, policies, and plans to guide development. We elect councilmembers and appoint commissioners who cherish these values and to who promise to protect our long standing rural, low density, and equestrian character. These things are important to us as a community. Given the fact that we have a clear General Plan and a commitment to ourselves to protect our rural charm, why is it that the city continually, and sometimes forcefully, changes the General Plan?

The first question to ask is, why would a property owner want to change the General Plan? The simple answer is; money. The money comes from increasing the density and intensity on a property. For example, if you buy a piece of land zoned for a 10,000 square foot building, get the city to change the rules, build a 20,000 square foot building, and immediately you just created a windfall profit. This is a simple business model. The problem with this model is that it creates significant impacts due to the density. Effectively the impacts are being externalized from the property onto the rest of the community that is abiding by the long-standing low density rules
The second question to ask is, why would the city government want to change the General Plan? The answer is the same – money. San Juan’s city government, like most, never has enough money to fully fund its staffing levels, service obligations, and other ambitions. Changing the General Plan to allow more density results in increased fees collected from developers by the city, an increase in property taxes, and in some cases an increase in sales taxes. The problem with this premise is that when the city gets more money, it just grows its expenses (see budget article in this edition). When this happens, the government is not any better off in the long run, but it has cut away at the community’s culture.

Effectively, the council majority is selling off San Juan’s identity little by little, until it is indistinguishable from the rest of the sprawl that has already sold out.

In the last two years, the following amendments to San Juan’s long standing density rules have been processed by the city government:

• Vermuelen housing tract – General Plan Amendment Initiated

• River Street commercial
development – Specific Plan Amendment Initiated

• City-owned Camino Playhouse parcel – selected project requires a General Plan Amendment

These projects come on the heels of the first Vermuelen (Spieker) and the Urban Village Townhomes and Hotel projects. Both of those projects were rescinded by the council in 2015 after referendum petitions were processed on each project. In those cases, the City Council voted to increase the density and the citizens said NO. The council majority is at it again, and the three projects listed above are working their way through the process.

Elected leaders and hired staff have an obligation to adhere to the General Plan. It is not appropriate to continue changing the General Plan to fit each individual project. The plan exists for a reason and it should be respected. City staff and the council majority have it backwards; projects need to be designed to fit the General Plan, not vice versa. If the council majority and staff want to achieve a different vision, they should identify this vision and allow it to be properly studied and voted upon. This alternative vision needs to be clear to the citizens of San Juan, not snuck through project by project.

*Source: City of San Juan Capistrano:


Matt Gaffney said...

My Dad, Jerry Gaffney, was one of the men who wrote the City's first General Plan & I served on the committee to rewrite the General Plan in 1999. As defined by the California Supreme Court the General Plan is a "Constitution" & just like the US Constitution it can be amended. If the General Plan wasn't able to be amended the City would have to write a new one any time a change needed to be made. As a lifelong resident of Capo I've seen many beneficial changes to come to my town that wouldn't have been able to happen without amendments to the General Plan. Capo is a markedly different city than it was in 1974 when the current General Plan was written, many of those changes wouldn't have happened without a General Plan amendment. CCS picks & chooses which items they choose to highlight to express their point of view. CCS is founded on innuendos, half truths & outright lies.

Editorial Board said...

How does that change anything we stated in our editorial? The amendment process exists for what I am sure are several good reasons however, the goal of the General Plan was to protect the small, semi-rural and historic nature of San Juan from over-development.

We stand by our statement about San Juan being snipped off, piece by piece, to accommodate ever more development. As a long-time San Juan resident, I am surprised that you are not troubled by this trend, especially when city administration has indicated that they "need" the revenue from development. If true that the city's unpaid pension obligations alone amount to about $48 million, it's no wonder.

Unfortunately for San Juan, its city government seems to be falling into the vicious cycle of generating revenue by approving more development which then creates the need for infrastructure "upgrades" which then necessitates more development revenue to pay for the infrastructure to support it... and on and on. Who benefits? Apparently, not the residents who sit in lines of traffic that grow longer every year, and whose water bills (among others) continue to increase.

Many of our readers have commented to us that revenue generation via over-development may be fine for a larger metropolitan area, but they want San Juan to remain the relatively small, unique historic town that it is now. They fear that it is fast slipping away...

As for your allegation about CCS being founded on "innuendos, half truths and lies"; I challenge you to point to even one lie that the CCS has reported as fact. You can't of course, because we base our reporting on information obtained through California Public Records Act requests, city council agendas, staff reports, city/county studies and reports, and court documents.

We are all entitled to our opinions, and you are of course entitled to disagree with our op-ed columns, but you cannot argue with the facts; they win hands down every time.

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