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South Orange County leaders discuss regional issues
By Andrea Papagianis, Brian Park and Jim Shilander
South Orange County faces a number of challenges in the coming year and in the decades ahead.
Some are basic, like how people living in the area will get from place to place and how they’ll receive affordable water. Other challenges are thornier. How best to manage growth in areas that are largely built out? How should cities balance the desires of residents with the business community? And what roles should local governments take in making these things happen?
The newly elected mayors of Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano—Lisa Bartlett, Tim Brown and Sam Allevato, respectively—gathered last month with members of the Picket Fence Media staff to discuss these and other issues facing the area.
What followed was a candid discussion of the challenges facing all three cities, how each is responding to its own unique issues and how much each could learn from the other.
Paving the Way
Thousands travel through the area every day on their way to San Diego or Los Angeles along Interstate 5.
However, unlike other areas of Orange County, there are no free alternate routes around the region.
The county Board of Supervisors recently named a contractor for the completion of Avenida La Pata, between San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, which could provide an alternative route between those cities. The project is scheduled to break ground in March.
Over the next several years, I-5 will also undergo a major overhaul. As part of an Orange County Transportation Authority improvement project, the freeway will be widened and a high-occupancy vehicle lane will be added.
Later this year, the project moves south, ultimately culminating in the reconstruction of the Avenida Pico interchange in San Clemente, which will not likely be completed until 2017.
San Juan has also seen the effects of construction throughout the last year, as Caltrans continues work on its two-year, $86.2 million project to reconfigure the Ortega Highway interchange. The change was necessitated to brace the interchange for projected population growth and increased travel in the coming years.
“That interchange was built in 1959, when there were 2,000 people living in San Juan Capistrano and probably half of that in Dana Point and maybe 5,000 in San Clemente,” Allevato said. “You had an interchange that was woefully inadequate, but I’ve been on the City Council going on my 10th year and I’ve been dealing with it ever since … just to get the thing built.”
Allevato said San Juan’s experience over the last year showed the importance of preparation for the effects construction can have on local businesses.
“The City Council two years ago started the Economic Preservation Committee, and we partnered with Caltrans as much as we can, and OCTA as much as they’re able, to help us and all of our businesses,” Allevato said. “We meet every Thursday to design ways of bringing more business downtown.”
Caltrans, as a state agency, is limited in what it can do to help cities mitigate the economic effects of road construction. Meanwhile, OCTA can help with outreach efforts, and has, in the last year, encouraged Metrolink riders to come to San Juan for events by offering specials.
San Juan also created an emergency ordinance allowing businesses to add extra signage. Despite city efforts, there have still been issues. Allevato highlighted instances where businesses have seen a decrease in patronage and revenues during construction.
“There is a lot of planning you can do, a lot of proactive business things you can do to help sustain these folks during construction,” Allevato said. “But it has definitively had an impact on businesses.”
Both Brown and Bartlett said they hope their cities learn from San Juan’s experience.
“An emergency sign ordinance is very intelligent and I’d like to see something very similar in San Clemente if it becomes a problem,” Brown said.
A proposed extension of the Transportation Corridor Agencies’ extension of the 241 Toll Road has been a major topic of discussion throughout the area in the last decade.
In 2013, an extension to just outside San Juan Capistrano was rejected by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board. The TCA is appealing the decision. The board also voted in 2013 to redo its agreement with the state, allowing the agency to collect tolls until 2053 on its existing roads, but potentially limiting its ability to collect tolls south of its current Oso Parkway terminus.
Bartlett chairs the TCA’s Foothill Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (241) board. She remains an advocate for the extension, despite the recent setbacks, citing its necessity with the construction of Rancho Mission Viejo.
“That Tesoro extension, that five-and-a-half miles from Oso Parkway to Cow Camp Road, is an essential component of the mobility pattern for the entire area,” Bartlett said. “We really need to get that project moving forward.”
Allevato, who also sits on the Foothill board, has much the same feeling but cited a need for an alternate route in case of disaster.
“I look at it, in a lot of ways, as a public safety issue. We have one major arterial going through south county. We’re the funnel for everything,” he said. “I just feel it is one more artery that has to be opened up to relieve the congestion.”
Brown said his concerns were primarily with what was best for San Clemente.
“As much as I love regional transportation questions, is it good for my city?” Brown said. “I don’t think any of us would be happy if they decided to pave over our city center because it was good for the rest of California. That’s what happened in San Clemente in the ’60s. They ran right over the city center and bifurcated our town.”
Outward, Onward and Upward
With the three cities being relatively built out, municipal bodies have turned to creative planning strategies to promote growth—both residential and commercial—within each respective city, while striving to preserve each locale’s identity, balancing wants of residents with the financial needs of businesses.
In some ways the cities are grappling with the same issues of building upward, parking residents and visitors, conserving historic character and maintaining views, but each have a set of rules completely differing from the next, decidedly guiding the direction its development takes.
“Each city is so different,” Brown said. “What works in San Juan would not apply well in San Clemente, and what works in San Clemente won’t apply well in Dana Point, because each was born separately and so differently, in a different time, with different developers and different priorities.
“It’s almost as if you hit the city limit and you’re like ‘Great, we share Southern California, but all bets are off in terms of everything else,’ because we are playing the hands we are dealt,” he added.
In San Clemente, Avenida Del Mar boasts shops, restaurants and free parking, but downtown growth is limited by small lot sizes and a three-story height restriction.
It is something city planners, leaders and residents have spent the last four years debating, as changes are being made to San Clemente’s 20-year planning document. One alteration reflected in the city’s General Plan, which could have council approval by early 2014, is a two-story limitation in the city’s center.
“We are all atoning for the sins of the past in a lot of ways,” Brown said. “There was a whole series of planning decisions made in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s that have had an incredible impact on our quality of life. We have streets with no sidewalks, buildings with no parking and we are just grappling with the reality of what we are dealing with.”
While at the forefront of discussion in San Clemente, planning rules were set by Dana Point in its Local Coastal Program and approved by the California Coastal Commission. The LCP grants Dana Point the case-by-case ability to OK projects within the Coastal Zone without further consent.
But projects in the Coastal Commission’s appealable jurisdiction and those requiring amendments to the city’s LCP—like the county’s Dana Point Harbor revamp, the city’s Town Center revitalization and a development of the Dana Point Headlands—still required state approval, presenting some inherent challenges, Bartlett said.
Other large-scale developments, like a proposed five-story hotel near Doheny State Beach, fall just outside the appeals zone, providing a hot topic of conversation for residents and planning commissioners over height limits, massing and just how far a developer can push the envelope.
“You need to develop strict standards, strict guidelines and adhere to them,” Allevato said.
This past year saw San Juan take a major step toward improving its relations with current and prospective developers. Following a complete overhaul of the citizen committee and commission structure, the City Council held its first-ever public interview process to fill all five Planning Commission seats.
During interviews with potential candidates, council members asked what could be done to make the city’s development review more efficient and eliminate a “Ping-Pong process,” where applicants often took their plans back and forth between the commission and its subgroup, the Design Review Committee. Later, the council voted unanimously to do away with the DRC in an effort to remove at least one more layer of review, simplifying the development process.
“In the past we had a design by committee where we actually had people argue about the radius of a curve on a Spanish-looking building,” Allevato said. “And here you have a property owner who has hired all these professionals on an hourly basis in these meetings that is costing them money, it is costing them time, and time is money when you are a builder.”
But in all three cities, balancing the monetary wishes of a developer or business with those of preservation, traffic and aesthetics of the community often times collide.
“More often than not … If the developer and community are not in sync, you have to figure out a way to reconcile differences,” Brown said.
The Water Struggle
For more than half a century, city and state leaders have been working to protect California’s water supply for future generations.
In south Orange County, where the overwhelming majority of municipalities rely on imported water, city leaders and water experts have kept a close eye on the goings-on at the state level but have taken their own steps to make sure residents have a reliable source of fresh water.
San Clemente, which imports nearly all of its water from outside sources, has embarked on one of the largest infrastructure projects in the city’s history to expand its recycled water system and treatment facility. The $25 million project will expand the city’s current system out to business parks, located in the ranchlands east of Interstate 5, and is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2014.
Dana Point, through the South Coast Water District, is also heavily reliant on imported water to service its more than 33,000 residents.
In addition to purchasing water, the SCWD has tapped into San Juan Creek with its own groundwater recovery plant, which produces more than 834,000 gallons of potable water daily, providing for approximately 15 percent of the district’s overall need. Plans to add an additional well to support the plant could boost its daily output to 988,000 gallons, or 18 percent of the supply.
Both cities are also part of a regional partnership in the Doheny Desalination Plant, a project to build a facility at Doheny State Beach that could pull in up to 30 million gallons of ocean water a day, treat it and produce about 15 million gallons of potable water, providing for about 25 percent of the area’s needs.
San Juan Capistrano was an initial investor in the project, but their future participation is up in the air.
Although Metropolitan Water District of Orange County still considers the city a partner, in 2012, San Juan declined to provide funding for the project beyond their initial $660,000 investment.
Within the city, the debate over water has been a controversial one that has sparked a lawsuit, a complaint that could lead to a multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit and an ongoing recall effort against Allevato.
San Juan Capistrano is one of the few cities in the region with its own water source, through its Groundwater Recovery Plant. At its best, the plant could produce up to 5 million gallons per day, enough to provide half of the city’s needs during the summer and entirely during the winter.
“The more water that we can produce locally at a cheaper rate, the better position we’ll be in,” Allevato said.
However, save for its first full year of operation in 2006, the plant has failed to produce its intended output and city officials have since scaled back their expectations. The plant’s rising maintenance costs and low output have drawn the criticism of many residents. The city’s water rates, too, have been challenged.
The Capistrano Taxpayers Association, a local taxpayers’ rights group, sued the city over its tiered rate structure in August 2012. The group has long argued that importing water through MWDOC would be cheaper for the city and ratepayers.
In August, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the CTA and declared San Juan’s water rates illegal because they violated Proposition 218, state law that requires rates to be relative to the cost of service. The city has since appealed the decision, and statewide, many cities and water agencies that also used tiered water rates are closely watching the case.
Future Governance of Rancho Mission Viejo
Residents have begun moving into the first of Rancho Mission Viejo’s five villages that when complete, with more than 14,000 homes, will rival the size of Rancho Santa Margarita.
The developers behind Mission Viejo, Santa Margarita and the unincorporated Ladera Ranch and Las Flores communities are on what they’ve dubbed their “last ride,” building up nearly 6,000 acres of land east of San Juan. While homes in the development’s first village are being occupied, the rest of Rancho Mission Viejo will be built out over the next 20 to 25 years. But questions surrounding the area’s governance, accessibility and educational facilities are being asked sooner, rather than later.
When it comes to the area’s governance, decisions regarding Rancho Mission Viejo’s options are in their infancy.
The Local Agency Formation Commission, established 50 years ago by the state, handles boundary changes, including incorporations and annexations of cities and special districts. Orange County’s LAFCO board is comprised of several local officials, including supervisors Pat Bates, Jim Moorlach and Todd Spitzer, but works independently of the county.
While the commissioners have begun meeting with local governments and stakeholders, Carolyn Emery, LAFCO’s executive officer, said the commission prefers incorporation.
But incorporating cities has become more difficult as state funding for new communities has all but gone away. A 2011 state law shifted vehicle license fees providing a financial boost to new cities toward law enforcement grants, making the incorporation process more difficult, according to Emery.
However preemptive they may be, south Orange County leaders want to be in on the discussion.
Both mayors Allevato and Brown tried their hand at getting on the 11-member board and failed. They hoped another south Orange County representative, in addition to Supervisor Bates, would be present on the board as talks about Rancho Mission Viejo’s annexation or incorporation continued.
Currently, a city representative from a town no farther south than Fountain Valley is on the body.
“There is no appreciation for the issues of traffic, water, crowding and overcrowding,” Allevato said. “I feel there should be someone on LAFCO that is closer to the epicenter of the growth in this county.”
Restoring Trust in Local Government
The leaders also broached some basic questions about their own philosophies in governing the city and how to balance the needs of the city and business community.
Brown said a general distrust of government had filtered down to the local level, in part because he was sometimes asked to work outside of what he considered his purview.
“We as local officials pay the price, because we are the closest to the citizens, and it has been reinforced literally on every level of government,” Brown said. “I feel as if when we begin to push ourselves into arenas where we aren’t welcome, we erode the trust in the areas we really should have our strengths. If we really focus on infrastructure, water, planning and the things that we should do very well … I think you can restore a lot of that trust.”
Some of that was born out in the relationship with the business community in each city. Allevato said he’s been asked in the past by developers or property owners about what he, in particular, would like to see.
“Obviously, I’m thinking about something that will bring revenue into the city because the city needs that to fix the streets, to turn the water on and to keep the police there,” Allevato said. “I’m not one to be stepping out of my bailiwick, of my expertise.”
Bartlett said this was something every leader needed to think about when it came to the economic impacts in their cities and balancing that with the desires of residents.
“If businesses want to come into town and they’re being overregulated … they will take their business and go elsewhere,” Bartlett said. “It’s incumbent upon council members to create a good, healthy business climate—not to over-regulate, to have reasonable building ordinances and to work in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and the business community. That’s what we do in our city and I’m sure in San Juan and San Clemente it’s the same, because every business you lose is a travesty.”