By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
But nothing happened for 14 years. In the meantime, the city began restricting Lujano's dominion over the orange groves. According to the Lujanos, the city made him contract out the orange picking to a private company and didn't allow him to use smudge pots, arguing they were harmful to the environment. Officials also made him switch pesticides—"All they were good for was killing everything instead of just weeds," he complained.
His 13 children grew up and moved away but returned every Sunday with their kids—his designated day off—to lounge on the ranch like the old days. It's a tradition they'll continue until Dad is booted off for good.
In February 2007, the city declared the Swanner House a historical landmark and placed it on the National Register of Historic Places, saving it from the wrecking ball. The Lujanos were there, and they received kind words from city officials for keeping the Swanner Ranch in such good shape over the decades. But three months later, San Juan Capistrano assistant city manager Cindy Russell surprised Ignacio with a letter stating, "The city has been evaluating the situation and has concluded that it is time to terminate this agreement." They gave the octogenarian 60 days to leave.
Lujano was shocked. He had been under the impression that there was no time limit on how long he could stay with his orange groves. "I want to stay here until I die," he says. "I can still work the oranges. I might not get around as fast as I once did, but I know them—I know what to do. Besides, I was promised I could stay."
On this point, the ravages of time seem to betray Lujano. In one breath, he says he and his son Roy signed a document attesting to the agreement, a document he can't find; a couple of minutes later, he says the deal was done with a city administrator "bigote a bigote"—"mustache to mustache," a handshake contract. "My dad doesn't lie," Alex says. "He's of the old school."
Lujano and his sons immediately went to city planners, who said they had no record of their claim. They must have talked to the right people, though, because San Juan Capistrano planners didn't press Lujano until November, when they cut him one final check. Over the ensuing months, they've taken away his tractor and other tools. They're now giving him 90 more days before he must leave for good.
Asked for comment, Russell referred the Weekly to Kelly Tokarski, a public-relations agent contracted by the city to handle media inquiries. She asked the Weekly to submit questions via e-mail and responded via the same method.
"The city is not bound by oral agreements," Tokarski wrote. "City agreements must be in writing." She said San Juan Capistrano's open-space master plan called for the Swanner Ranch to become a maintenance yard for the city's open space and that "this is still the intended use."
* * *
A city truck rumbles through the Swanner Ranch. Ignacio Lujano looks on in disgust. "My dad says it's wrong: leaving one tree to die at a time," Alex says.
"These new guys don't know how to take care of anything," Ignacio sneers. "They'll try to irrigate all the trees at once, and all they get is a drizzle of water that evaporates before it soaks into the ground."
Alex and his brothers have talked to every city official they can get on the phone, begging them to let their elderly father pass away on the ranch he so loves. Though sympathetic, council members, city staff and lawyers all tell them the same thing: Without a written contract, they have no case. Tokarski says San Juan Capistrano has been more than charitable with Lujano.
"The city originally gave Mr. Lujano 90 days' notice to vacate in May 2007 and has been working with him since that time," she wrote in her e-mail. "The city will provide 90 days' notice even though the agreement allows for 60 days."
As it stands, Lujano must vacate the Swanner Ranch by Aug. 14. If he doesn't, according to a May 15 letter sent by San Juan Capistrano city manager Dave Adams, the city will "initiate legal proceedings against you to recover possession of the premises and to seek a judgment for damages for each day of occupancy after the expiration date of this notice, including statutory damages, costs and attorney fees." Ignacio isn't sure which child will take him in.
It's a miracle the ranch survived as an orange grove as long as it did. Just down Camino Capistrano is JSerra Catholic High School. To the north is the Crystal Cathedral-owned Rancho Capistrano. Development is everywhere. The once-untouchable lands of South County are now fair game.
Without the protection of developers, nothing is sacred in Orange County. Ironically, the bad housing market might keep those few remaining orange groves around for a couple of years, according to Mike Bennett, Orange County's deputy agricultural commissioner. "Some of the developers are holding back on putting in houses," he says. "That's still premium land, where the crops are."
But he also doesn't blame farmers for leveling groves, nostalgia or not. "There's no money in oranges," he says. "The payoff for oranges is so pathetically minimal that farmers can hardly get their money back."