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A Pet Favorite for Kids Likely to Stay

A plan by the buyers of the Jones Family Mini-Farm in San Juan Capistrano includes its petting zoo, as well as a cafe and arts facilities.

August 29, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Janine Folliard saw the "for sale" sign as she entered the Jones Family Mini-Farm and suddenly grew nostalgic.

"This place is a little piece of heaven for my kids," said Folliard, a Texas resident who visits the San Juan Capistrano petting zoo four times a year while visiting family in La Habra.

"There's no place that really caters to kids like this."

Fortunately for Folliard -- and thousands of other moms, dads and children -- it appears the 1.4-acre property in the heart of the city's historic district will remain a petting zoo. Gil and Millie Jones, who have operated the mini-farm for more than two decades, are selling to the Rudolf Steiner Institute, a nonprofit organization that plans to keep the zoo operating.

The new owners, who promote the values of 19th-century philosopher Rudolf Steiner, have submitted a proposal that includes a petting zoo, a cultural and educational center based on the Waldorf teaching philosophy, an organic cafe, a retail store, and a fine arts and ceramic studio.

Sharon Plumb, the institute's director of development, said she hopes to have an artists-in-residence program, a children's theater company, an early childhood development center, foreign language classes and circus acts.

"This place is a treasure," Plumb said. "We just want to basically add to that."

The petting zoo is in escrow, but Plumb said her group needs to raise more than $1 million to finance the $2-million-plus deal. The Steiner proposal must be approved by the City Council.

Gil Jones, who put the farm on the market almost a year ago for $3 million, said he was insistent that the new owner preserve the petting zoo. He said most of the potential buyers planned to eliminate it.

One group wanted to turn the farm into a miniature golf course, another talked about batting cages, and one prospective buyer wanted to build single-family homes on the lot.

"We held out for the right buyer," said Jones, 72, a former San Juan Capistrano mayor.

Current Mayor Joe Soto said he is pleased that the Steiner proposal includes retaining the petting zoo, but that the plans still need to be scrutinized, especially because the farm is in the town's historic district, where everything from aesthetics to parking is a concern.

The Joneses' decision to sell the property across the street from the train depot didn't come easily. After 20 years of losing money, the mini-farm began to turn a profit the last few years. But health problems, liability insurance costs and the animals' need for constant attention forced the Joneses to sell.

The farm was once part of a 2,500-acre Mexican rancho. The Olivares home in front of the property was 100 years old and needed plenty of work. Once Jones refurbished it and the small house he shares with his wife, he placed the property on the National Register of Historic Houses.

In the late 1980s, he began offering pony rides. In 1990, he opened the petting zoo and began stockpiling child-friendly animals -- rabbits, emus, guinea pigs, goats and horses.

While her 18-month-old daughter, Erin, clutched a brown-and-white guinea pig, Janine Folliard said she felt relieved that she could begin making plans for a return trip to the mini-farm.

"Every time we come to California, we make a point to come here," she said. "There's no place in Texas where your kids can sit here and hold the animals for hours."

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