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The Long and Winding Road to Cityhood

Bringing San Juan Capistrano to a vote to incorporate was no easy task at the beginning of the 1960s.

We are quickly approaching the 50th anniversary of San Juan Capistrano’s achievement of cityhood, with the town having been incorporated into Orange County on April 19, 1961. 

This week, I would like to discuss for a bit, San Juan Capistrano’s shaky path toward cityhood, because incorporation had long been a controversial topic for the town.

Though the story of San Juan Capistrano dates back to the in 1776, and even further when one takes into account the  who lived in the area before the arrival of the Spanish, the town was the 23rd in making its establishment official through Orange County, following Las Alamitos in 1960.

The problem with incorporation for those living in Capistrano had always been a fear in loosing control over the destiny of the town. Local historian Pamela Hallan-Gibson observes that even as far back as 1933, opponents of incorporating the town were making the same case: “There would always be the danger of control slipping into the hands of visionary promoters who might run the people into debt and difficulty.”

San Juan Capistrano was a valuable and historically important town. But it was also a very small town, and those who opposed incorporation could not risk putting its livelihood in jeopardy. The dispute remained more or less settled, until the 1950s, when a new controversy, the arrival of the 5 freeway, helped bring the issue of incorporation back into the spotlight.

Like incorporation, the freeway’s arrival divided the town. As Gibson notes, “The freeway meant change, and change, until one gets used to it, is usually disturbing.” She addresses the fact that as the freeway’s opening in 1959 drew closer, many in the community feared that its presence would draw traffic away from the city’s downtown and cause it to go bankrupt like many other small towns that saw their demise following the onset of freeway access.

However, in January 1959, a local paper commented shortly after the freeway’s opening, “This weekend’s influx of tourists proves one thing … In spite of the freeway, people will continue to flock to San Juan Capistrano. Their primary interest is in the old mission.” With a new major artery connecting Capistrano to the rest of Southern California, its citizens saw how the freeway generated an even larger stream of tourists into town, which at this point became the city’s top industry. Fears that the freeway would ruin the town began to subside.

The freeway, as was the case with incorporation, had brought on fears of the town’s ruin. But as it turns out, it was its very presence that allowed Capistrano to continue to evolve and thrive in a new direction. Incorporation would be viewed in a similar light, just a few months later, when an ongoing battle between Capistrano and San Clemente over where the location of a new high school should be, came to a head.

This fight, which Pamela Gibson argues was the major motivating factor that brought about the town’s incorporation, stems from the 1920s, when Capistrano and San Clemente were assigned to the same high school district, with San Juan Capistrano chosen as the school site due to its higher population. Fast-forward to the 1950s when plans for a new school to replace the old one are being carried out; now that San Clemente is the town with the higher population, it wants the site to be within its city limits. This does not sit well with people in Capistrano. What followed was a bitter struggle between the two towns that went on for years, with neither side willing to budge on where the school should be located. Ultimately in March of 1962 however, San Juan Capistrano lost the fight.

This ongoing battle again highlighted the importance of local control. “Not only did the residents want a hand in planning the future of San Juan, they also feared that the county government might not always know what’s best for the mission town.” Thus, the best way to ensure Capistrano’s future was to incorporate.

Around the time that the school battle was really heating up, a group called Neighbors of San Juan Capistrano for Incorporation began making the argument that entering into cityhood was in Capistrano’s best interest. People seemed to be taking notice. On Aug. 2, 1960, a notice of intent for incorporation was filed with Orange County Board of Supervisors. By Jan. 25 of the following year, boundaries for San Juan Capistrano had been drawn up and submitted. Then on April 11, 1961, incorporation was put to a vote, and eight days later, San Juan Capistrano officially entered cityhood. Things certainly seem to have turned out for the better because of it.

Keep following next week, when I’ll discuss incorporation a bit further as well as the immediate changes it brought to Capistrano. Hope to see you then!

Further reading: Pamela Hallan-Gibson’s Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, the city has set up a Celebration Committee, which has been hosting events in town all year long. This past Saturday, April 9, the committee held a festival at Historic Town Center Park that honored all of the former members of City Council, and next weekend there will be another held at the library.

Small Town Girl April 11, 2011 at 03:00 PM
Yes, I agree. This is exactly why we should focus on the preservation and the rebuilding of businesses located in beautiful downtown San Juan Capistrano.
Garry Meeker April 12, 2011 at 04:20 AM
I don't see much of the preservation taking place, most have been torn down, such as The Las Rosas, Gymnasium, The old red brick hotel and cafe and the barbershop all within the structure; packing house, and several wooden frame homes have been relocated to other locations through out San Juan. Developers have taken over, tearing down the historical red brick structures, homes and adobe structures. Yes; politics did come into play, when deciding for a new high school, also when running for city council in 1961 . At that time it was all about developing and purchasing land, making back room deals, and making money.
Adam Verdon April 12, 2011 at 10:13 PM
You make a very valid point, although I wouldn't go so far as to say that city officials totally sold the town out to developers. It really is a shame to see a lot of important spots get torn down and paved over as the years have gone by. I address this point in this Sunday's follow-up piece; hope you'll keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the feedback everyone!

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