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Store to Be Put to Voters in San Juan

Land use: City Council decides to schedule a November special election on a proposal to sell Home Depot a 13- acre site for $9 million.


Torn between protecting the city's small-town charms and an opportunity to reel in much-needed capital, the San Juan Capistrano City Council has elected to punt. The council agreed Tuesday to schedule a special fall election to let voters decide whether to sell city property to the Home Depot Corp. for $9 million.

The Nov. 5 vote will be advisory. But to Councilman Wyatt T. Hart, it will be binding. "It's the citizen's land, so I'm asking for their advice," he said. "Whatever they decide, I'll support."

The council's 3-2 vote for a special election on the issue was unexpectedly close. Council members David M. Swerdlin and Collene Campbell believed the council had an obligation to make the final call on whether to let the home improvement center set up shop in a town better known for its historic mission, restaurants and streets lined with old adobe buildings.

"We are elected to make decisions," Swerdlin said.

The initiative could set a bad precedent, he said. "I don't think that land-planning issues should be done by the ballot," he said. "Even though this is an advisory vote, it may develop more meaning than it should."

In November, four of the five council members are up for reelection--everyone but Councilman John Gelff.

Swerdlin is concerned that the Home Depot issue will dominate the campaign. "An initiative like this is going to provide fertile ground for a campaign issue that may well provide more smoke than light," he said. "There's going to be no real control over what's factual, other than what's on the ballot."

The ballot measure will ask voters if they favor selling 13.22 acres of undeveloped land between a set of railroad tracks and San Juan Creek near Stonehill Drive.

Hart said the question is simple. "We're not asking about the constraints, the traffic problems and all the other stuff," he said. "All we're asking the property owners is whether they want to sell it to Home Depot for $9 million. If they say yes, then we'll figure the rest out and make sure they're not negatively impacted."

In April, the council voted to begin negotiations to sell the land to the retailing giant.

About 1,800 people signed a petition opposing the sale, saying it would ruin the character of the town, which is built around its 225-year-old mission and 150-year-old adobes. Opponents worry that a "big-box" store would bring traffic and pollution and block ocean breezes.

The ballot measure will include arguments for and against. But the council will write neither.

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