Brad Gates, Space Cowboy

The ex-sheriff's open-space dealmaking has some in San Juan Capistrano crying foul

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Despite the controversy it sparked, everyone seems to agree the riding park at the corner of Ortega Highway and La Pata Avenue is, at the very least, nice.

Leaving San Juan Capistrano heading east on Ortega, it’s on the right. Lemon trees sit as low green globes dotted with yellow, their waxy leaves rippling with the breeze. A wide field of grass stretches beyond. To the south, the land shoots up into a rambling slope bisected by power lines. Cutting the center of the 132-acre property is San Juan Creek, which turns turbulent after rain.

Gates speaks at a memorial service for Orange County Sheriff's  Sergeant Ira Gabor Essoe Jr. earlier this month
John Gilhooley
Gates speaks at a memorial service for Orange County Sheriff's Sergeant Ira Gabor Essoe Jr. earlier this month

Rancho Mission Viejo has owned this land for more than 100 years, as part of the company’s 22,000 acres of land in unincorporated South County. Those holdings are what’s left of a privately owned empire that once included the wilderness that would become Camp Pendleton, as well as the cities of Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita and the communities of Ladera Ranch and Las Flores—all of which were planned and developed by the Ranch or its subsidiaries.

In January, the city of San Juan Capistrano annexed and closed escrow on the purchase of the riding park. The cost was $27.5 million of open-space bond proceeds—a small price, some said, for the preservation of a property at the town’s eastern entrance that had hosted Olympic horse-jumping trials, polo games, weekend soccer matches and an annual rodeo.

The Ranch had planned to develop the property into a retirement facility, a housing development and a community park—all as part of its “Ranch Plan,” approved by the county in 2004, that will eventually lead to the construction of 14,000 new homes dispersed throughout the remaining tracts of land. Now, though, that parcel is a part of the city of San Juan Capistrano, where it shall remain as “open space,” though not everyone agrees about what that means. City officials are only now looking into what it actually wants to do with the property and are hoping it will generate revenue.

For the members of the Open Space Committee, though, the hard part is over. With this purchase, they’ve established their legacy.

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“It will unfold as any great park unfolds,” says Tom Lunnen, a real-estate developer who sits on the Finance Subcommittee. “It’s a 100-, 200-year vision, that park. A hundred years from now, people are going to remember who Brad Gates and [fellow subcommittee member] Dick Paulsen were.”

Lunnen does not quite speak for all the citizens of San Juan Capistrano. “This polo field has been sold to the people of San Juan as open space, which is a word of magic, meaning whatever you want it to mean when you say it,” says Byrnes, the 85-year-old ex-mayor. “And we’re holding the bag.”

The past year has seen San Juan Capistrano’s gadfly contingent coalesce around the cause, speaking out against the city’s recent open-space deals. The riding park’s price and purchase conditions were too onerous for the city, they say. Plus, the council signed away the right to ever annex any additional portion of Rancho Mission Viejo’s land, as well as ever say one word—much less file a lawsuit—if the town leadership doesn’t like the manner in which the Ranch executes its plan to build 14,000 homes near the city’s border. And a large portion of the park’s acreage is already protected from development—raising the question of why the city needed to buy it to keep it “open.”

What’s more, critics point out the city didn’t prevent the construction of new homes by buying the property; rather, it just made it so those homes will likely be built somewhere else in the unincorporated land nearby. “The polo grounds are going to be surrounded by Rancho Mission Viejo communities,” says San Juan Capistrano resident Kim Lefner, a persistent critic. “It will be a park for the Rancho Mission Viejo community, not for us.”

Even Londres Uso, the city’s mayor this year, has expressed doubts about the deal—though he voted for it. “It would not have taken much for me to have said, ‘no,’” Uso says. “I wanted to buy that property, but there were just so many restrictions.” He points out a provision of the agreement that allows the Ranch to retake the property if the city violates those restrictions—which include limits on water use and the amount of traffic that can be generated by events held at the park. “They can repossess the whole damn thing without paying us a penny. That’s scary to me.”

Supporters of the deal, though, brush off critics as mere squawkers. They point out that the city got the property for below its appraised price of $31.1 million—and certainly below what the land would have been worth in a stronger housing market.

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