Recall petition launched over development planned next to San Juan Capistrano’s historic Los Rios district

The plan for a commercial development next to California’s oldest continuously lived-in neighborhood has led to a petition to recall two San Juan Capistrano City Council members.

Recall supporters have said the redevelopment of the former Ito Nursery into a shopping mall will irreparably damage the adjacent Los Rios Historic District, home to buildings dating back to 1794. Some families in the neighborhood of quaint bungalows have reportedly lived there for a century.

The developer is asking for about 61,000 square feet of commercial space spread between five Agrarian-style buildings, covering nearly a quarter of the 5.6-acre property, according to city documents. The project would also add 289 parking spaces and 316 trees to the site.

On Nov. 7, the San Juan Capistrano City Council directed city staffers to hire two consulting firms to study the environmental and traffic impacts of the project.

Within days of this vote, Mayor Kerry Ferguson and Councilman Derek Reeve were served with intent to recall papers, claiming the pair broke campaign promises to oppose rezoning that will allow massive development and work to reduce traffic.

“While the recallers have every right to attempt to recall me, no one has the right to state knowingly false defamatory statements intended to damage a person’s reputation,” Reeve wrote in a Facebook post.

Ferguson urged residents to consider the facts before signing the petition and not to be misled by alleged false statements.

“All those who know me, know my work for the city of San Juan Capistrano, and my heart for our residents, realize that I have always made my decisions after thoughtful study and public input and with the benefits for the residents of our city in mind,” she said. “The idea that I would do otherwise is belied by my record.”

Former Councilman Jeff Vasquez, an organizer of the recall petition, said a petition to recall Councilwoman Pam Patterson is not connected to his group’s efforts.

If San Juan Capistrano City Clerk Maria Morris determines the petitions adhere to state law, petitioners will have 40 to 160 days to gather signatures. State law requires at least 20% of registered voters living in a city to sign the petition before the recall vote can proceed. This means petitioners will need the signatures of about 3,844 San Juan Capistrano voters, according to records from the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

Developer Dan Almquist said it’s unfortunate the debate over his project, River Street Marketplace, has devolved into a recall campaign.

“The claims that have been made in the recall are false,” Almquist said. “I think both Derek and Kerry have served the community well. We’ve elected city officials and in my opinion unless there is something egregious taking place we have to respect the choices they make.”

After 30 years of living in Los Rios, Vasquez said he’s intimately familiar with the neighborhood. Traffic is sometimes so bad on Del Obispo Road it takes him 20 minutes to drive a mile to I-5, he said.

“The gridlock is considerable and we don’t need to add to it with commercial sprawl,” Vasquez said.

The recall petition’s allegations extend beyond the borders of Los Rios Historic District. Vasquez is frustrated by the City Council’s vote to sell the Camino Real Playhouse and an adjacent public parking lot to Almquist’s company, Frontier Real Estate Investments, for development of a 250-seat performing arts center, restaurants, shops and underground parking.

The ideal outcome would be for the city to purchase the nursery and use it as a park, Vasquez said.

Harrison Taylor, a nearly life-long resident of Los Rios Historic District, said it’s unrealistic for someone to argue the property should never be developed.

“We’ve always known that something was going to happen to the Ito Nursery,” he said. “It’s too valuable and too close to downtown.”

Taylor said he’s supportive of the project because he believes it will attract more visitors, especially millennials. One highlight of the project is a 9,000-square-foot central lawn that will be used for community events. Another is a market with a butcher, fishmonger, bakery and a variety of to-go food and drink vendors.

“I’m not saying build 100-foot skyscrapers but something that’s progress,” Taylor said.

Other Los Rios residents like Dave and Mary Ann Davidson want to see the results of an environmental impact report and traffic study before deciding whether they’ll support the Marketplace.

Dave Davidson said a lot of the traffic on Los Rios are drivers looking for a parking spot.

“I think if there’s parking immediately when you come into the neighborhood it would help the congestion,” he said.

A proposed round-about and parking signage would also help, he said.

Mary Ann Davidson said she’s distressed by those who have signed the petition without doing their homework first.

“It’s disgraceful that people on their way to buy their groceries sign something because they don’t want to say ‘no,’” she said.

Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.

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