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Revamped Trail Plan Puts Saddleback School on Path to Expansion

The small Christian school awaits final approval from the San Juan Capistrano City Council to build out its campus on Oso Road.

Nine months after it asked the city for the go-ahead to expand its campus, one of San Juan Capistrano's small private schools got its first big green light Tuesday night.

The biggest hiccup in its plan was a settlement agreement with the city that required to give the public access to a trail that traverses its property on Oso Road. The trail is a connector to the .

After several public meetings, the Planning Commission on Tuesday told the school that its proposal to build an interim trail along the edge of its athletic fields would be satisfactory, so long as the City Council agrees.

The 6-year-old settlement agreement had established time lines for Saddleback , but those milestones weren't met due to the bad economy, school officials said. In that time, part of the public trail it had once provided washed out in winter storms.

For months, city officials wrestled with where the interim and permanent trail should be located, the type of fencing that should be installed along its edges, its stability and the like. 

It was more amenable to the plans Tuesday after the city's Design Review Committee helped the school fix some of those issues.

The vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Jeff Neely dissenting and Chairman Sheldon Cohen absent. Neely said he was "still unconvinced that 2 inches of mulch will actually work as a combination trail" for cyclists and equestrians.

Saddleback intends to eventually build a permanent trail on the bench of, where the existing trail collapsed. But the Planning Commission is skeptical that the plan will ever come to fruition, as it would require permits from the state Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"If the school elects to pursue the trail on the bench, they’re going to have to go through the arduous regulatory agency permit process," said Commissioner Ginny Kerr.

The school is still awaiting a ruling on its litigation with Fish and Game over "fill and riprap" along the creek and native plants that were removed during the school's initial construction.

The school was founded in 1997. In 2008, it completed the first of three development phases. There remains, however, modular buildings on its 14-acre campus, which are to be removed as it finishes building out its school. Saddleback owns nearly 70 acres of land off of Oso Road.

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