For the second time in seven months, San Juan Capistrano city leaders have approved construction of a Roman Catholic high school's athletic complex on a 29-acre parcel that includes an ancient Juaneno Indian burial ground.
The City Council voted 4 to 1 for the plan, despite emotional testimony from tribal members, longtime San Juan residents, anthropologists and Sierra Club representatives who argued that building athletic fields for Junipero Serra High School on the property would threaten a sacred site at the north end of town.
"I felt it was a done deal coming in," Damien Shilo, chairman of one faction of the Juaneno tribe, said after the vote late Monday. "I was hoping that they'd listen to the people. There were some very impassioned pleas as to the significance of the cemetery, not just to the Juanenos, but to the community of San Juan Capistrano and the entire state."
Junipero Serra High officials were in a celebratory mood Tuesday as they announced the school would open Sept. 3 with 300 to 400 freshmen and sophomores attending classes in buildings on the north side of Junipero Serra Road at Camino Capistrano. The south campus, across the street from the disputed 29 acres, will have a gymnasium, baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts, a swimming and diving complex, a running track and a performing arts center.
"The item was decided last fall," school co-founder Tim Busch said. "The council merely cleaned up a procedural glitch flagged by the court."
But Shilo said his group plans to continue their fight. "We're reviewing our options, and court is surely one of them," he said. "We need to do what we can to protect our cemetery."
The council took the second vote because a judge ruled that the city's earlier approval of the project violated the state elections code. The March ruling held that the council couldn't amend the initiative petitions filed by project supporters. The initiative sought to shift the property's zoning to public and private institutional use from office and commercial use.
The council considered whether to put the rezoning question to city voters or accept the initiative petitions that school boosters had qualified for the ballot last year. Opponents of the high school wanted the initiative put to a citywide vote, but panel members decided to adopt the initiative to avoid the expense of an election.
Councilman Joe Soto said an election would cost $50,000 to $60,000. "As we begin to make cuts on services that will affect all of our residents, I truly do not feel justified in spending this huge amount of money for this one issue," he said.
Councilwoman Diane Bathgate cast the sole dissenting vote, saying the initiative process doesn't allow for thorough public and environmental review of the site.
"I'm not against development at this site," she said. "But I think it needs to be sensitive to the Juanenos. This was a deliberate attempt to bypass the review process."
Since the project was first approved in October, the council has changed. Councilwoman Collene Campbell, who voted against it, was replaced by newcomer Soto. He and council members David Swerdlin and Wyatt Hart received campaign contributions from school backers in the last election.
Shilo believes that the money influenced the votes of council members.
Swerdlin -- who voted for the project initially, and again Monday -- disagreed. "A lot of people who ran for council and lost also accepted money from J. Serra [supporters]," he said. "I didn't go out and solicit money.... They saw the leadership position I took and they helped me out. The money they gave was certainly a worthy portion of my campaign fund, but not the majority."
Swerdlin said he decided to support the school project after he concluded that it would beat the alternative: a 450,000-square-foot hotel and office complex proposed by developers who previously leased the land.
"To me, the school was the better use when taking into account what our residents want to see as the northern entrance to our town," Swerdlin said.
School boosters say the grave sites -- there are believed to be at least seven graves -- wouldn't be disturbed by the athletic grounds. Another faction of the Juaneno tribe, led by David Belardes, agreed to the high school's plan once administrators announced they would not destroy any burial sites and would erect monuments recognizing tribal leaders and religious figures.
Belardes, who has monitored archeological sites throughout Orange County, told the packed meeting that his tribe was getting a good deal from Junipero Serra officials. "A lot of times we don't have a voice," he said. "I've dealt with developers who never compromised, but this city and J. Serra have. The site will be capped and Juaneno culture will be preserved."