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Homes coming to San Juan Capistrano hillside as equestrian center stalls

rendered map of the  planned 154-acre Distrito La Novia-San Juan Meadows development
Approved by San Juan Capistrano voters in 2011, the 154-acre Distrito La Novia-San Juan Meadows development is to include 94 homes, 130 apartments, office and retail space as well as a 500-horse equestrian center. Developers are ready to build the homes but have not yet won approval of the equestrian center from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.
(Courtesy of Advanced Realty Services, Inc.)

Nearly 25 years in the making, the development plans for one of south Orange County’s few undeveloped hillsides remain lofty.

The homes, shopping and office buildings are somewhat standard fare, but San Juan Capistrano residents were presented with a particularly enticing amenity when they approved the plan in 2011: A 41-acre equestrian center fit for 500 horses, with trails, RV parking and plenty of opportunities for community gatherings.

But with the 10-year anniversary of the referendum vote on the Distrito La Novia-San Juan Meadows project approaching, nothing’s been built, and the town is grappling with the prospect that the homage to its equestrian culture is still wracked with uncertainty.

“It would really be a tragedy to see the equestrian aspect of this property not happen,” said San Juan Capistrano Planning Commission Chairman Harrison Taylor during a meeting Tuesday.

Commissioners are recommending the City Council impose a fee if the equestrian center isn’t approved.

A view looking south toward the Patriots Hill hiking area in San Juan Capistrano.
A view of the foothills looking south from Paseo Placentia toward the Patriots Hill hiking area in San Juan Capistrano.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Developer Robb Cerruti, principal at Advanced Real Estate Services, told TimesOC he’s committed to the stables.

“It’s always been our intent to put an equestrian center up there,” said Cerruti, who lives in San Juan Capistrano. “Obviously we’ve got a lot of work to do in meeting the requirements of the various agencies.”

The would-be location of the horse stables presents the most pressing problem: It’s an old landfill at the base of the popular Patriots Hill hiking area, east of the 5 Freeway, and it’s regulated by the San Diego Water Quality Control Board. Geologists analyzed multiple versions of the plans before developers removed the equestrian center and focused only on plans for the landfill closure and maintenance. The board authorized that in December 2016, and now Cerruti hopes to begin constructing the homes by the end of the year. His company already crushed vegetation “prior to the nesting bird season” and donated $600,000 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cerruti said in a letter to San Juan Capistrano City Hall staff.

Planning commissioners on Tuesday gave Cerruti another three years to finish the project. Cerruti said he’ll again try to win approval of the equestrian center from the water board, but he wants to start building the homes first.

Commissioners on Tuesday voted to recommend the City Council impose a fee if the equestrian center isn’t approved.

Commission Vice Chairwoman Tami Wilhelm, who suggested the fee, said the equestrian community “is dying a death of a thousand cuts.”

“I support that community wholeheartedly and feel we need to do everything humanly possible to protect and preserve it. But we can’t always extract it out of our developers,” Wilhelm said.

The uncertainty comes at a sensitive time for equestrian-related projects in San Juan Capistrano. The town known for its Swallows Day parade and 245-year-old Mission has long promoted itself as a last bastion for cowboy culture in Southern California, but local equestrians fear their community is increasingly under threat.

A federal lawsuit from Orange County Coastkeeper led to environmental restrictions and forced improvements at the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, and two horse stables are on the market and at risk of being converted to other uses, including the largest, Sycamore Trails Stables, which has 450 horses, said Julie Ryan Johnson, founder of the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition.

“There are potentially over 500 horses that are going to need to find homes, if not more,” Johnson told TimesOC.

Riders take to the trail near the Ortega Equestrian Center in San Juan Capistrano on Wednesday, May 5, 2020.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

 The coalition currently is raising $10,000 to give to a local project that relates to horses and equestrian heritage. Meanwhile, another volunteer group, the Open Space Foundation, is revitalizing to focus on promoting the city’s equestrian history and its economic benefits while encouraging its preservation.

“It’s time for us to reach out to the rest of the community and explain why horses are part of our heritage and why they’re important to save,” Johnson said. “Even if you don’t ride a horse, the fact that you can watch horses ride over to the golf course is kind of cool.”

She’s hopeful for Cerruti’s equestrian center plans but acknowledges, “He’s been put through the ringer.”

“We hope it still is a good business proposition for him,” Johnson said. “But he understands there’s a huge need. He gets it.”

Cerruti’s company bought the bulk of the land in 1999. Residents concerned about overdevelopment forced a referendum vote after the San Juan Capistrano City Council amended its general plan in 2010 to allow the project. Voters approved the plans, but geologists with the water quality board spent years reviewing multiple versions of Cerrutti’s proposals before he pulled the equestrian center last year.

Planning Commissioner Matt Gaffney said the equestrian center was a major reason he and other residents voted for the project. He said he’s sympathetic to Cerruti’s situation.

“They’ve been hamstrung by the regional water quality board and other entities out there that are throwing nothing but red tape in their direction. These guys have acted in good faith the entire time,” Gaffney said.

The project is split by La Novia Avenue. The office and retail as well as 130 apartments and condos are to be located on the north side of La Novia from the landfill, so the land is not subject to the same water board regulations that the homes and equestrian center are. Cerruti said the retail and office plans likely face significant changes before anything will be built.

“Obviously the retail landscape’s changed dramatically,” Cerruti said.

Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor to TimesOC.

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