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Battle over new hotel next to Mission San Juan Capistrano escalates

Battle over new hotel next to Mission San Juan Capistrano escalates
The Inn at the Mission, a new hotel next to Mission San Juan Capistrano (pictured), is at the center of a battle between rival developers, as the foundation Save the Mission files a lawsuit to stop construction. (File Photo)

Activists more accustomed to speaking at a City Council meeting than in a courtroom recently gathered for a trial that’s divided San Juan Capistrano.

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Bill Griffith and Steve Oedekerk, developers who are former friends and neighbors, are clashing over the construction of Griffith’s Plaza Banderas Hotel — also known as The Inn at the Mission — next to Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The rivalry has engulfed city politics for several years.

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Construction of The Inn at the Mission — a 124-room boutique that’s to be one of Marriott International’s custom and branded Autograph Collection hotels — began in December.

The hotel project is nearly 10 years in the making, with developer Griffith buying the land in 2015 after previous hotel plans faltered. Griffith also owns the historic Egan House a couple of blocks away, home to Ellie’s Table cafe.

In 2016, he successfully sued to stop a rival hotel project by Oedekerk, a movie producer, from being developed next door.

Now Griffith’s on the other side of a lawsuit, and his adversaries are the community group Save Our Mission, some of whom are San Juan Capistrano residents who had advocated for Oedekerk’s project.

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In February, Save Our Mission filed a lawsuit to try to stop the construction of the hotel over alleged California Environmental Quality Act violations.

After hearing testimony March 25, Orange County Superior Court Judge Glenda Sanders is trying to determine if Save Our Mission has a legal right to sue.

Save Our Mission is not affiliated with Mission San Juan Capistrano, which supports the hotel.

Griffith’s lawyer, Rick Friess, argues the group is a front for Oedekerk and his friend Marc Weintraub, who Behmerwohld enlisted to promote the lawsuit to the San Juan Capistrano community.

The resulting courtroom testimony was, in popular TV terms, “Law and Order” meets “Parks and Recreation,” as Behmerwohld took the stand for nearly 90 minutes, answering questions about his interest in city politics, his involvement in groups such as the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society and his volunteerism as a school crossing guard.

“Do you think of yourself as a watchdog for the things that happen in the city? An activist?” asked Save Our Mission’s lawyer, Chuck Krolikowski.

“A gadfly,” Behmerwohld answered.

The saga is laced with small-town ties, with Oedekerk and Griffith living across the street from each other, Friess’ brother a development contractor for Griffith, and Behmerwohld reminding Friess in a deposition last fall: “I used to bring Meals on Wheels to your grandmother.”

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A city Man of the Year honoree in 2013, Behmerwohld has been identified in court proceedings as the main person behind Save Our Mission. But he testified that the decision to sue wasn’t his, and he said he didn’t pay the court filing fee.

Ann Ronan — a travel agent, Chamber of Commerce board member, Mission volunteer and the city’s Woman of the Year in 2017 — testified that she wasn’t funding the lawsuit either.

According to testimony, Ronan joined Save Our Mission during an August gathering at her home, and Behmerwohld didn’t tell her when she signed up that a lawsuit already had been filed in the group’s name.

The group met once at Marie Callender’s but has no regular meeting or bylaws.

Still, both Behmerwohld and Ronan expressed deep love and concern for San Juan Capistrano and said they genuinely support the lawsuit’s goal of requiring Griffith’s hotel go through further studies.

“The whole County of Orange built up around that Mission, and I feel passionately that anything built next to such an important asset should go through the proper processes,” said Ronan.

Griffith’s lawyer Friess, however, pointed to murky details about the origins of the group, which Krolikowski formed in 2015 for other litigation related to a previous rendition of the hotel. Krolikowski renamed it in 2016, and Weintraub was for two years its only member.

A businessman and San Juan resident, Weintraub said in deposition: “Mr. Krolikowski came up with the name Save Our Mission.”

The judge never heard from Weintraub during the brief trial.

Krolikowski said he wasn’t a necessary witness.

“There’s no reason to call many, many people to the witness stand,” Krolikowski said.

However, Weintraub emerged as a key figure in Friess’ argument that Save Our Mission was a sham.

In cross examination, the attorney showed Behmerwohld a letter Weintruab sent to Marriott hotels in 2017 in which Weintruab questioned Marriott’s partnership with Griffith and said “the community is talking about forming a group and petition against Marriott.”

Behmerwohld testified he didn’t know of the letter, nor did he know of emails between Oedekerk and Weintruab that show Oedekerk authored it.

In one exchange, Oedekerk sends a draft to Weintraub that he said he wrote “for the person that thinks Marriott is doing all of this.”

It begins, “Have lived in San Juan Capistrano for INSERT years and any personal blah de blah.”

Weintraub replied, “Looks good. You can remove ‘blah, blah.’ ”

The letter apparently didn’t sway Marriott.

Save the Mission’s lawyer Krolikowski said this week he believes he’ll prevail.

“Most of their case is innuendo about who’s friends with who,” Krolikowski said. “I don’t know how far they’re going to get with it.”

Executives met with Griffith’s development team in San Juan Capistrano in February for an inaugural operational meeting.

Griffith said April 18 that Marriott is “working closely with us as we approach our January 2020 opening date and will soon begin promoting San Juan Capistrano throughout their international network.”

“As residents of over 30 years, we’re very excited to be delivering a luxury boutique experience to our downtown very soon,” Griffith said in an email.

If it survives the current court challenge.

Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor to TimesOC. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanncuniff, and follow @timesocofficial for more news and features about Orange County.

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