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Home Depot in Capistrano? Council Leans Toward Asking City's Voters

Election: Officials will decide July 2 whether to put the disputed issue on the November ballot.

June 20, 2002|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

City Councilman Wyatt T. Hart faces a quandary and wants some advice--yours, if you live in San Juan Capistrano.

His financially pressed city would get a $9-million payday if it sells Home Depot 13 acres on the southern edge of town. But to many, the real estate deal would be another blow to its historic old-town charm.

Hart and his colleagues were close Tuesday night to placing the issue on the November ballot and letting the voters sort things out. The council will decide July 2 whether to let voters choose Home Depot's fate.

"It's not that we're weak, but everybody needs help now and then," Hart said.

"An initiative would give us the help and the guidance we're looking for."

Councilman David M. Swerdlin said it would be appropriate to ask residents: "Should we put a Home Depot in an area that is basically out of sight and out of mind and derive a fairly sizable tax base from that? Or do we look at Home Depot as something more suited to a city than a small town?"

In April, the council voted to begin negotiations to sell the land on Stonehill Drive to the giant home improvement company. But there was plenty of opposition.

About 1,800 people signed a petition against the sale, saying it would destroy the character of the town, which is built around its 200-year-old mission and 150-year-old adobes.

Opponents worry that a "big box store" would bring road-clogging traffic, pollute the air and block ocean breezes from a mobile-home park for senior citizens.

Jack Heath, among the 400 who live at the Capistrano Valley Mobile Estates, has been fighting for 15 years to keep Home Depot out of his backyard.

Heath's "No Home Depot" committee gathered the 1,800 signatures to oppose the sale, but he never expected there might be a citywide referendum.

"I thought we were stymied," he said. "It didn't seem like we were getting anywhere. But maybe the little drops of water have finally made a big puddle."

City officials say the $9 million from the sale and the sales-tax bonanza to follow would be a windfall.

"We don't have hotels like Dana Point and all these other communities have," Hart said. "So we need the income. One police officer costs $134,000 a year. We need more parks, there's water issues, traffic problems, and we need to buy more open space."

Hart said he would like the referendum written so the money is earmarked for specific needs, such as buying open land to help preserve the town's rustic feel, and easing any traffic problems created by Home Depot.

Although Hart favors the project, he's not sure the voters do.

"I'm here to serve the public," he said. "If the public says they don't want it, it ain't going in. There's other things we could do with that land. We could sell it for something else. But I'm sure we would lose a lot of money."

If the council calls for an election, Heath and other members of his group say they will attempt to introduce voters to an alternative to Home Depot--a 600-space RV and boat parking lot.

"The city will get a lot of money from an RV park--maybe not as much up front as with Home Depot," Heath said. "But the RV park doesn't bring in the Big T, and that's traffic. And this way, the city will still own the land."

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