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By then, Lujano had five children; the prospect of raising them without a job was frightening. But he remembered an employment offer made years earlier by Charles Swanner, a Santa Ana attorney whose family owned a ranch across Interstate 5 from the Rosenbaums. The day after the Rosenbaums dismissed him, Lujano showed up at the Swanner Ranch and reminded Charles about his promise. The lawyer kept his word: He fired a foreman on the spot and replaced him with Lujano. "I felt bad for the guy I replaced, but I had a family to feed!" he says with a laugh.
The Swanner Ranch was historic even then. It originally belonged to Richard Egan, an Irish immigrant credited with helping to bring the railroads to Orange County. He planted orange trees, some of which still stand. Afterward, the ranch was acquired by Roger Y. Williams, a former Orange County district attorney and Superior Court judge. The Swanners bought the land in the 1950s.
Lujano and his family moved into a house on the southern side of the Swanner Ranch; the Swanners kept one toward the north that they rarely inhabited. Charles and his brother Roger hired Lujano to oversee all aspects of their Valencias, from planting new trees to fumigating to ensuring thieves didn't come in the middle of night and steal oranges. He pulled weeds, dug irrigation ditches and listened to KFI-AM 640 every night at 7 p.m. for its frost report, so he'd know whether to light a smudge pot to protect the orchards. And when spring came and the trees sagged with the weight of their fruit, Lujano enlisted his children to pick the oranges.
The Swanners visited only sporadically during the next 20 years, leaving the ranch largely to the Lujanos. Alex remembers a wonderful childhood mitigated by rural realities. "Growing up, we didn't have potable water," he says. "We'd have to get our water pumped to a water tank that didn't always work."
The family could've moved somewhere else, but Ignacio preferred the simple life. "It was better to have them running around breathing the free air, so they wouldn't want to be running around on the streets," he says.
By the end of the 1980s, San Juan Capistrano officials began pressuring the Swanners to sell the ranch to the city as part of an effort to secure more open space. Without any proof, council members began insinuating to residents that the Swanners planned to sell off their holdings to developers.
"Here's the alternative. Look right over that ridge," TheOrange County Register quoted then-mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer in 1989, arguing why the city should buy out the Swanners. He pointed at the hills next to the ranch, where Laguna Niguel tracts loomed. "People need housing and jobs, but they also need open space. They need someplace to wander around or ride a horse. I believe it just has to be good for everybody's mental health." In another interview, Hausdorfer told a reporter the Swanner Ranch should become public land because "most kids have never been close enough to an orange tree to see an orange on it."
In 1989, residents united as San Juan Citizens for Open Space. The chairperson was Marlene Draper, then a private citizen but now better known as one of the embattled Capistrano Valley Unified School District trustees who face a recall election June 24. The group placed a $20 million bond on the 1990 ballot to buy farmland; the measure passed. The following year, the city used some of that money to buy the Swanner Ranch from its owners for $6.95 million.
At the time, Roger Swanner let orange trees die as a protest against the city's chokehold. But before he gave up the land, Roger made sure Lujano would be able to stay. He negotiated a month-to-month agreement that made his trusted worker a city employee. The contract stated Lujano would give "services consisting of maintenance of orchards and structures" to the Swanner Ranch. The city would pay for water and nothing else.
In a May 25, 1993, letter, Swanner wrote to Lujano, "I appreciate your taking such good care of the Ranch for 23 years. If you have any problems with the city and you need my help, please give me a call or write to me. I will be glad to do what I can to help." (Swanner could not be reached for comment for this story. But Ignacio and Alex Lujano say he has called San Juan Capistrano officials on their behalf, to no avail.)
City planners unveiled grandiose plans for athletic fields, a senior-citizens' center, community garden, bike and horse paths, and a Juaneño Indian museum. They also vowed to keep an orange grove as a historical marker.
In 1994, the city won a $1 million California Transportation Authority grant to beautify the Swanner Ranch. "It's a very interesting parcel. It's really one of the last remaining vestiges of Orange County history," Sharon Heider, the city's open-space project manager, told the Register. "We plan to use the money to rehabilitate orchards, add new landscaping and remove old plants that were degrading the historic landscape. The idea is to retain portions of it as it looked long ago and improve others."
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