City opposes mail facility

Times Staff Writer

San Juan Capistrano officials spoke out Monday against plans to turn a large portion of a bucolic ranch-style campus owned by Crystal Cathedral Ministries into a bustling mail facility.

“This would destroy the gateway into our community,” said Mayor Sam Allevato at a news conference on Camino Capistrano, the two-lane road overlooking the property, which is nestled between Interstate 5 and grassy hills on the northern edge of the city. “It’s totally out of character for our rural ambience.”

But the city may not have the authority to stop the development. Most businesses need approval from the city to develop the land, but the U.S. Postal Service, as a federal agency, could exempt itself from such laws.

That lack of control has angered city officials, who said the facility would threaten the character of the city, known for its equestrian trails, open space and historic mission.

The mail processing center would be housed in a 9-acre building and employ 300, and would be among the largest employers in the city of 36,000.


Crystal Cathedral Ministries, which operates the 10,000-member church in Garden Grove, acquired Rancho Capistrano in 1980 as a donation from John Crean, founder of RV manufacturer Fleetwood Enterprises.

Last month the group agreed to sell 78 acres of the property to the Postal Service for tens of millions of dollars. Government officials declined to give the specific amount, saying the deal wasn’t in escrow yet.

The city’s open space committee last month voted to oppose the mail facility; the city has considered buying the property to keep as open space.

Although the Postal Service already owns a 26-acre parcel in Aliso Viejo and is still considering putting the center there, the site in San Juan Capistrano would give the agency more room and better freeway access, said Postal Service spokesman Richard Maher.

Currently, southern Orange County’s mail is sorted in Santa Ana. But as the county has grown, so has the need for a facility farther south, Maher said.

San Juan Capistrano has jealously guarded its open space and ridgelines and has opposed major commercial growth.

Officials from neighboring cities said they also vowed to fight the postal facility through resolutions but admitted there was little they could do to stop the agency.

“This is an unholy alliance between the Schullers [founders of the ministry] and the federal government,” said Dana Point Mayor Diane Harkey, who predicted that vehicles from the center would compound regional traffic congestion.

Maher said about 200 trucks would come in and out of the center each day.

“This is the least-impacting development we’ve seen proposed,” said James Penner, senior facilities manager for Crystal Cathedral Ministries. The one-story building, he said, would not block the hillsides and would leave the land closest to the city’s historic district undeveloped.

“Our intent here is not to be bad neighbors,” he said. The retreat center puts “100 people to bed every night here 90% of the year. We have the biggest impact.”

Postal Service officials said that although they were concerned by the public’s reaction to the plan, the land is on private property and could be developed without a zoning change.

Crystal Cathedral Ministries put the property up for sale three years ago and has been negotiating with the Postal Service since April, Penner said. The northern half of the property operates as a spiritual retreat center and also houses a small private school and four congregations.

The undeveloped southern half is used for storage and soccer fields. That portion was bought by the ministry for $4 million in 1982 as an investment, Penner said. He added that the land sale would fund the Garden Grove-based church’s endowment and pay off debt.

Previous plans to develop the property have been controversial. JSerra High School, a Roman Catholic school now on another property less than a mile away, planned to build its campus there in 2001, but the deal was scrapped by Rancho Capistrano Ministries because of Serra’s requirement that religion teachers at the school be practicing Catholics.

The Postal Service will make the final decision on whether to put the facility in Aliso Viejo or San Juan Capistrano in the next few weeks, Maher said. Construction will begin next spring and the center should begin operating in 2010.