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Future of Petting Farm Again in Doubt

Frustrated by the requirements of building in a historic zone, the owners of the San Juan property say they may bow out.

June 23, 2005|Lomi Kriel | Times Staff Writer

It seemed so simple at the time.

Carolyn and Omar Gonzalez would save the Jones Family Mini Farm in San Juan Capistrano after its owner announced his retirement and the farm's future was left in doubt. The Gonzalezes, who own Omar's Exotic Birds Inc., hoped to improve on it as a playground with emus and llamas, macaws and parrots, for children and bird lovers.

But after months of negotiating the many obstacles that come with building in a historic zone, the couple say their frustrations are mounting.

The renovation has proved so exasperating, the couple said, they may give up their plans for the farm.

On July 1, they will move their bird business back to Lake Forest, leaving the petting farm's future again uncertain.

The Gonzalezes are scheduled to meet with the city's Development Advisory Board on Wednesday for a preliminary review of their plan for the farm, dubbed Zoomars Petting Zoo & Bird Park. They have envisioned a gift shop, walking paths and an aviary.

"We're just baffled," Carolyn Gonzalez said of the efforts to renovate the farm. "We never expected it to be this difficult."

City officials questioned the enlarged llama fence and animal pens and said the colors the Gonzalezes chose to repaint the buildings -- "historic gold" and "vanducen blue" -- were too flashy.

"They tell us to do one thing, they tell us to do something else," Gonzalez said. "We've just been getting the runaround."

Molly Bogh, planning director for the city, said the couple "were treated like every other business in town."

Work on the mini-farm is being scrutinized because it is in the Los Rios Historic District, one of the state's oldest residential neighborhoods, with some homes dating to the late 1700s.

In some cases, Bogh said, "they've done work without any permits, without any approval at all."

The city ordered them in March to stop construction, and this month told them to postpone painting until the colors were approved by the Cultural Heritage Commission, the Planning Commission and other agencies. The farm has remained open.

Gonzalez said she had secured the necessary permits and had painted wood samples so officials could see the colors.

She said the city had provided "a lot of unclear direction."

After the city's review next week, the couple's plans will face a public hearing, in which the city could attach "conditions of approval," such as the type of landscaping allowed.

Meanwhile, the couple will run their bird business from Lake Forest, trying to pay for both properties and keep their business intact.

"We'll continue to try to do what we wanted to do," Gonzalez said. "If the city wants us, they'll work with us. If they don't, we'll take the hint."

The city came close to losing the farm, a tourist attraction for 25 years, when former owner Gil Jones couldn't find a buyer willing to continue the farm.

Visiting the petting zoo with her two children Wednesday, Christine Karpf of Mission Viejo said she was dismayed to hear that the zoo was in limbo again.

"I don't know of any other place to take my children to see animals up close like this," she said.

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Times staff writer Dave McKibben contributed to this report.

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