Brad Gates remembers growing up in San Juan Capistrano in the 1940s and '50s.
The retired Orange County sheriff says there were about 600 people in town, it was all open space, and you could ride your horse almost anywhere.
Now, 60 years later, Gates and the other members of the Open Space Foundation are looking to keep that feeling alive.
The foundation, a nonprofit volunteer group created to maintain and improve open space in San Juan Capistrano, is ramping up its operations, preparing to unveil a new website, a public membership program and its work on city-owned land in the northern part of town.
Gates, the foundation's president, says that an open house for the renovated 2.5-acre Northwest Open Space Staging Area on June 25 will help residents feel pride in what the foundation is doing.
“[They’ll say] somebody called the foundation … improved that space, and now I’m able to walk my dog, ride my bike, walk along with my wife, ride my horse and park my car and do what I want on property that we’re paying taxes to own,” Gates said.
At 30261 Camino Capistrano, volunteers have spent hours setting up the grounds to act as a hub for pedestrians, horseback riders and cyclists to access the city’s open spaces.
According to Gates, the graded land will include picnic tables, water troughs for horses, horse hitches, about 3,000 feet of fencing and about 3,000 feet of irrigation.
Protecting open space is important to many residents. About 50 percent of the city is open space—that is, undeveloped, natural land—according to the foundation.
In 2005, the city established the San Juan Capistrano Open Space Committee to make recommendations to the City Council about open space issues.
In 2008, some of the members of the committee formed the foundation, with the mission “to promote the preservation, restoration, expansion, improvement and public use of open space within San Juan Capistrano to enrich the quality of life for area residents.”
The foundation raises funds for open space projects that the members vote for. Scroll to the end of the story for a full list of foundation board members.
Colleen Edwards, foundation secretary, said the foundation feels that locals support keeping open space open, and she cited the recent passage of two bond measures as evidence.
In 2008, residents passed by 78.9 percent Measure X, an initiative prohibiting officials from rezoning "open space" land to any other type of land without a vote of the residents.
At the same time, voters passed Measure Y, a $30-million bond measure designed to give the city funds to buy, set apart and improve land for open space use. It passed with 70.2 percent of voter approval.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing that could only happen in San Juan Capistrano, where there is such a passion about our open space,” Colleen said.
An Eye Toward the Future
Though the website sjcopenspacefoundation.org is still under construction, foundation officials expect to finish renovating the page sometime in early June.
With the advent of the new website, they want to make it easier for people to contribute to the cause.
On June 15, at the first of the city’s Summer Nights concert event, they plan to introduce a tiered membership program for individuals and corporations.
“It would be your ability to contribute to the accomplishments that the foundation is working on,” Edwards said. “It would give them some pride in their community.”
Edwards also said they are looking to apply for a number of grants.
The next item on the foundation’s agenda is renovating a portion of land at the Two C Ranch, behind J.F. Therapeutic Riding Center, to make it more like the staging area one at the Northwest Open Space.
Foundation members plan to secure funding and get volunteers once the city chooses a place for it.
Gates, 72, said he remembers being able to ride his horse all over the area when he was growing up, and he wants residents and his descendants to be able to share that feeling.
“I will continue, as long as I’m able, to make sure that we can continue to provide that atmosphere to the people that live in this town and the children that will be raised here,” Gates said.
“That’s worth more money than I could ever get out of doing anything else,” he added.
The open house for the Northwest Open Space is from 3-7 p.m. on June 25 and will include barbecue, wine and beer and cotton candy for purchase.
For more information, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Foundation board members
Brad Gates, president
Dick Paulsen, vice president
Colleen Edwards, secretary