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Judge allows San Juan Capistrano hotel lawsuit to move forward

San Juan Capistrano, seventh mission, 1777
A view of Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1987 on the morning of the solemn dedication of St. John of Capistrano Church.
(File Photo)

Developers of a hotel under construction next to Mission San Juan Capistrano may encounter another obstacle in their decade-long battle to complete their 124-room development.

Two San Juan Capistrano residents can challenge the City Council’s approval of design changes to the Griffith’s Plaza Banderas Hotel under provisions in the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA), according to a recent ruling by Orange County Superior Court judge Glenda Sanders.

Steve Behmerwohld and Ann Ronan argue in their lawsuit that tweaks to architectural plans for the boutique hotel will block views of the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano.

A vocal community group, Save Our Mission, strongly opposes the development adjacent to the historic landmark erected in 1776.

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“At least some of [Save Our Mission]’s members have demonstrated through their civic involvement and long-term concern about the City and the Mission, that they have a specific interest and a commitment to protecting the rights of the beneficiaries ... of the City’s public duty to protect the environment of San Juan Capistrano,” Sanders wrote in her tentative decision.

Developer Bill Griffith’s lawyer, Rick Friess, argues that Save Our Mission is a front for his client’s business rival, Steve Oedekerk.

In 2016, Griffith successfully sued Oedekerk to stop him from developing a hotel on a site a couple of blocks away from the mission and next to two buildings — both owned by Griifth — on the National Register of Historic Places.

City attorney Jeff Ballinger said it took an extensive investigation to discover who else is involved with Save Our Mission because “it didn’t appear to be a very transparent organization.”

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“Once we found out through pretty extensive discovery who that was, it was pretty clear that those individuals are involved in local politics,” Ballinger said.

Judge Sanders ruled it was irrelevant for Griffith’s development company, Mission Commercial Properties, to argue the case should be tossed because some supporters of Save Our Mission have competing financial interests.

Though Behmerwohld has been identified as the main person behind Save Our Mission in court proceedings, both he and Ronan testified that it wasn’t their decision to sue and they are not funding the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Chuck Krolikowski, said he looks forward to arguing the case’s merits.

“The ruins of the mission is the No. 1 historical asset in the city, and the project essentially blocks the view of the mission,” Krolikowski said.

Meanwhile, Plaza Banderas construction continues.

“If the judge ultimately rules that they violated [the California Environment Quality Act] , the judge has the discretion to take [the new construction] down and they knew that,” Krolikowski.

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Ballinger said San Juan Capistrano is disappointed with the judge’s decision to allow the lawsuit to continue.

“No city likes to find itself in the middle of these kinds of lawsuits,” Ballinger said. “CEQA, for better or for worse, is pretty liberal in the types of plaintiffs allowed to bring lawsuits. We and the hotel continue to defend the lawsuit vigorously.”

Reporter Meghann Cuniff contributed reporting to this story.


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