A campground with Airstream trailers and safari tents for glamping could make use of an empty 65-acre property along the 5 Freeway in San Juan Capistrano that historically was one of the first Native American settlements in Orange County.

Envisioned by the real estate investment firm Red Tail Acquisitions is The Orchards, a 40-acre campground that would also offer cabins, cottages, and spaces for RVs. The site, the city’s Northwest Open Space, would also have equestrian trails, a recreational center and potentially a community park for local residents. And the city could still build a long-discussed park honoring the history of the Acjachemen Nation in the region.

City Council members solicited for interest in projects using the open space area – grassy flatlands shaded with trees and bounded by a creek to the south – that would keep the property largely natural, but bring money into city coffers.

A recreational campground project “is a perfect fit” for the property, said Ben Ketel, a principal with Red Tail Acquisitions and its subsidiary Highway West Vacations. “We are very excited about the public benefits and amenities we will be able to provide for the residents of San Juan Capistrano and their visitors.”

But preservationists are concerned Red Tail Acquisition’s proposal may neglect the history of the site, and Mayor Brian Maryott, the only council member to oppose the proposal, considers it a violation of the spirit of Measure D, which passed in 1990 and financed the purchase of the Northwest Open Space.

“There is no financial reason whatsoever why the Northwest Open Space has to be seen as an income source for the city,” he said. “There just isn’t.”

But most council members view the city as struggling financially and said the additional revenue from the site’s use is necessary.

An up-scale campground would also create another draw for tourists and make the property more accessible for the city’s residents, Councilman Sergio Farias said. “A lot of people don’t even know where it is.”

For thousands of years, members of the Acjachemen Nation lived in the area, then the village of Putuidem. Many descendants of the tribe still live in San Juan Capistrano.

After the Mission San Juan Capistrano drove out the tribe, orange trees and other crops were grown at the site. In the early 1990s, San Juan Capistrano bought the 65 acres, and has since made some improvements, including a dog park and access to hiking trails.

In 2017, after the city paid off the bonds that raised money to purchase open space, leaders started exploring the “limited use of a portion” of the Northwest Open Space. Nearly a dozen proposals were received. Along with the campgrounds, a project dubbed the Capistrano Vineyards with a farm-to-table restaurant and a wedding venue as well as soccer fields was considered.

Ultimately, it came down to revenue, Farias said. Red Tail Acquisitions said The Orchards could raise $1.2 million for the city each year, compared to a $600,000 expectation from the Capistrano Vineyards.

But Jerry Nieblas, president of the Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee and a descendant of the Acjachemen Nation, had been pushing for the Vineyards, saying its proponents have constantly talked with him and have been considerate of the area’s history. It seems unrealistic that the space can remain open without some extra use, he said.

“If we don’t grab this opportunity, the future council can change its opinion and we can see housing tracts or office buildings,” he said. “That’s my biggest fear for the land.”

He also viewed The Orchards as too intrusive by potentially bringing heavy-duty vehicles such as RVs into the lot.

Tim Kihm, representing Red Tail Acquisitions, said in an e-mail the company has reached out to Native American tribal groups by phone and email.

“We are only in the infancy stage of conceptual planning,” he said. “We plan to work closely with not only the Native American tribal groups, but the community as a whole, city staff and City Council to develop an outdoor recreation project that is environmentally and culturally sensitive, yet accessible and enjoyable by all.”

The council could vote on an agreement with Red Tail Acquisitions within the next three months, Assistant City Manager Jacob Green said in an e-mail.

There is also a question as to whether those developing the site will help with building and/or maintaining the tribal culture park the city has been planning for years.

After bids to construct the park, including a simulated Acjachemen village, came in more than $700,000 above the city’s $2.1 million budget in October, city officials started working on a scaled-down version to bring the project under $2 million.

The council is expected to vote on a new scaled-down version of the park in April, Green said.

View this article from The Orange Country Register in its entirety with images by visiting their website: https://www.ocregister.com/2019/03/18/a-campground-offering-glamping-could-make-use-of-san-juan-capistranos-northwest-open-space/