SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Springtime in the Capistrano Valley has again brought fresh crops of strawberries, tomatoes and leaf lettuce to the Kinoshita Farm and the tantalizing scent of orange blossoms that local rancher Pat Bathgate calls "almost intoxicating."
What's made this happen isn't nature alone, but also an unusual election and a costly tax. On April 10, 1990, San Juan Capistrano voters trooped to the polls in huge numbers and did something that shocked dubious political experts: They agreed by a 71% majority to tax themselves to buy farmland to preserve the rural charm of the valley.
"That was a big, big step for this community," said City Councilwoman Carolyn Nash.
But that step hasn't come without pitfalls.
The vote has already cost the average city property owner nearly $900 in extra taxes since the election, a burden that will continue until the year 2017, when the $21 million in bonds approved in the election are finally paid off.
And now, with most of the bond money already spent, city officials acknowledge they have fallen short of some of their goals. Less than 100 acres of the desired 120 acres of farm land have been purchased, and the other parts of the bond package--a 32,000-square-foot community center and ball fields--have not yet materialized.
A sports complex that was scheduled to break ground last December is still on the drawing board.
For the moment, city officials advise residents to be patient. Progress is being made, although perhaps not as quickly as voters expected, said City Manager George Scarborough.
So far, the city has made two major purchases with the bond money--the 42-acre Swanner Ranch with its 70-year-old farmhouse, for $6.9 million, and the 56-acre Kinoshita Ranch, for $9.5 million. The rest of the money has been earmarked for design work on the sports complex or the first phase of the senior center.
"The delays are frustrating, not only for the community but the city staff," Scarborough said. "We are on our way and I'm sure other communities are envious of what we have been able to accomplish."
In the meantime, some residents have begun to lose focus on what the election was meant to preserve. People such as Ben Michalec figured his taxes were going to save agricultural land, not convert it to ball fields.
"I think we're having a misappropriation of some of the land," said Michalec, 65, a 25-year city resident. "I thought the wishes of most of the community was to leave the land as open space with a limited amount of use."
Others, like Al Simmons, the president of the city's more than 400-member seniors club, is awaiting the start of the community center. He admits his club members are getting anxious.
"We are very cautiously optimistic," said Simmons, 73. "Most of us would like to see something get started before 1995."
The problem, according to Councilman Gil Jones, is that people often forget that the election's success was a coalition of local special interests that have unmet expectations. While some supporters were voting for ball fields, others wanted to save dying orange groves, and their neighbors were counting on a community center.
"It's a misnomer to say that election was to preserve agriculture," Jones said. "Agriculture was always an important element, but the seniors here probably voted for their own community center and the Little League parents probably voted for ball fields. If we hadn't incorporated all the various elements of this community, that bond vote never would have passed."
People also often forget that the 1990 election was no overnight success. It was actually the result of about 16 years of mostly futile efforts to preserve the agricultural heritage in the city, said Ken Friess, a former longtime city official who stepped down from the City Council in 1992.
In 1976, a similar bond initiative that would have created a 230-acre agricultural preserve failed and other efforts to win grants were equally fruitless, Friess said.
"We must have tried 15 different approaches over the years, but nothing worked that would have generated the amount of money to make it happen," Friess said.
By the late 1980s, it had become evident that the only way to save open space in the city was to buy it, said Councilman Gary L. Hausdorfer. And the only way the city would buy it was to persuade all the city's factions to endorse the bond measure, Hausdorfer said.
"We came to the conclusion that the only way we could prevent the land from being developed was to acquire it ourselves," said Hausdorfer, the city's mayor from 1988-90 and the man most often credited with putting the city coalition together.
"We put together a group of leaders and got a campaign together that had all positives, no negatives," he said. "A community center for the seniors, ball fields for the parents and passive open space for the preservationists."
Voters now wonder what will become of land purchased with open space bond funds.