Carolyn Franks, owner of the Zoomars petting zoo on historic Los Rios Street… (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles…)
Historical advocates in San Juan Capistrano argued that the jagged hills of southern Orange County were deep under water when dinosaurs first roamed the Earth. No land-roaming dinosaur — neither a T. rex, stegosaurus nor apatosaurus — would have come through unless lost at sea.
Many things have changed since the water washed away: Missionaries built a majestic cathedral, settlers established what would become one of California's oldest neighborhoods and a thick cloud of swallows would flock back to their nests here each spring.
But this much has held true: There's still no place for an apatosaurus on Los Rios Street.
City officials decided earlier this month that the 40-foot statue of the friendly faced apatosaurus — installed by Zoomars, a petting zoo on the historic avenue — had to go, ending a squabble of Jurassic proportions that held the city's attention for months. The city sided with historical advocates who saw the dinosaur as an eyesore, cheapening the neighborhood's real history, and others who just saw him as a nuisance.
Carolyn Franks, the zoo's owner, has had to find a new home for the statue dubbed Juan the Capistrano Dinosaur.
Homeowners throughout Southern California have offered to put him in their yards, and a college professor wanted him on campus. But, ultimately, Franks settled on Grand Canyon Caverns, a tourist attraction in Peach Springs, Ariz., right on Route 66.
"I feel like a mom placing her baby," said Franks, who drove out to the speck of a desert town before deciding it would be a good home for him. "I feel that dinosaur has brought a lot of joy to the zoo. I just want to share it with more people. I just want to put it in a good place."
The dinosaur's detractors are glad he'll soon be gone.
"She finally woke up and knows it's unacceptable in San Juan," Ilse Byrnes, a local historical advocate who worked to have Los Rios added to the National Register of Historic Places, said of Franks. "I'm glad it's over. If it had gone through, it would have set a precedent — a bad, bad example."
The statue of the leathery green-gray creature with a long neck and goofy smile was built in the Philippines and cast off by a Romanian shopping mall before somehow finding its way to one of Orange County's oldest and tiniest towns. Franks bought the statue for about $12,000, thinking the dinosaur would be a magnet for her young clientele and fit right in with the menagerie of ponies, goats and alpacas already there.
But the troubles began soon after he arrived. In June, Franks — who hauled in the statue without permits or permission — was cited by the city, receiving a hand-written notice that she described as a cease-and-desist letter.
"Unpermitted brontosaurus," it read.
"It's a historic animal in a historic animal park, and I don't understand what the fuss is about," Franks said. "None of it makes sense to me. None of it makes sense to anybody."
But others — including some of Franks' neighbors on Los Rios Street — argued that the creature did not belong, sticking out amid the old adobes and 200-year-old wooden houses.
Roy Byrnes, a city councilman, said the debate was about something larger than the dinosaur. He said the apatosaurus was but the latest chapter in a long back-and-forth over the profit motive of businesses on the street and the tranquil environment the people who live there want to maintain.
"For goodness' sake, we want commercial uses and we want businesses to thrive," Byrnes said. But, he added, it cannot come by robbing residents of their peace and quiet. "We'll lose the historic qualities of Los Rios," he said. "It's a balance."
The 10-month debate found its way to the City Council earlier this month, after votes by the planning and cultural heritage commissions. Other council members floated alternatives, such as letting Juan hang around for a while longer — another two years — so that Franks could recoup her investment. But after a split vote, a Planning Commission decision to boot the statue was upheld.
Franks complained about how political the process had become, but she has no regrets. "He's brought smiles and laughter to so many people," she said.
She recently received another letter from the city. This time, an eviction notice.
The city declared that Juan must be gone by 1 p.m. on May 3. Yet he should be far from his perch between a playground and a goat pen by then — a good six-hour drive through the desert, to the spot on Route 66 with a statue of a T. rex out front, welcoming him home.