December 2015 - Riding Park At Risk?

December 21 meeting begins local review of popular San Juan Capistrano venue.

by Kim F. Miller

“Equestrian Capital of the West Coast” is one of the rotating banners on the City of San Juan Capistrano’s website. The City has a long history with cattle ranching and the horse-owning lifestyle, but much of its current reputation stems from the shows held at the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park at San Juan Capistrano.

Since the Measure Y Open Space Bond measure passed in 2008, the property was purchased by the residents of San Juan Capistrano.

Blenheim Facility Management has since had a management agreement with the City, from which show organizer Blenheim EquiSports rents the property to hold their competitions.

Blenheim EquiSports began holding shows at the property in 1999, when the land was privately owned. Their hunter/jumper and dressage events have brought the best regional, national and international horses and riders to the town of 35,000 and the venue has hosted several rounds of Olympic selections in both disciplines.

The management agreement was a carefully negotiated endeavor from the get-go, seeking a balance between the public’s right to access and enjoy the property and the realities of maintaining it as a horse show venue and covering the between $200,000 and $250,000 due the City as part of the agreement, along with its maintenance, insurance and utility expenses.

Many support the Riding Park as a positive and profitable endeavor for the City. However, as with most anything involving public lands, the sentiment is not universal. That’s why there’s a proposal to not renew the Riding Park management agreement when it expires at the end of 2016. The recommendation arose during a Nov. 15 meeting of the City’s Parks Recreation, Senior and Youth Services Commission, which exists to make recommendations to the City Council.

Described in the subject line as “Consideration of Sec. 2-2.602 C D & E,” the recommendation of Commission member Kim McCarthy was put forward in a manner that many Riding Park supporters viewed as an attempt to slip it through unnoticed. For procedural reasons, it turned out that the agreement was not officially on the agenda that night, yet there was still plenty of discussion about it. The commission eventually voted 5-1 to agendize the subject for the next meeting, set for Dec. 21.

During the November meeting, Kim McCarthy stated that the Measure Y effort was “not initiated as a riding park” and that the land’s current use was “not fulfilling the criteria of Measure Y and deserves open discussion.”  Initial Measure Y discussions referenced baseball, soccer, lacrosse and biking and walking trails, she noted.

Former SJC Mayor and longtime City Council member Sam Allevato counters that Measure Y was approved by 70% of the voters and that its mandate includes preserving open space and preventing development, along with providing some sports facilities. “The Riding Park has delivered on every issue,” he asserts.

In addition to equestrian competition, the Park currently hosts soccer and lacrosse games.

As in past threats to the Riding Park’s continuance, equestrians spoke in strong support. They emphasized the revenue it brings to the City and to local businesses with anecdotal support that the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition expects to validate soon with a specially commissioned economic impact report.

There were multiple references to Measure Y’s mandate of “unrestricted access.” Supporters asserted that the Riding Park is open to the public, despite perceptions to the contrary.

Except for the annual rodeo, competitions are free to the public and the property is accessible for walking, riding, picnicking, etc. A new bike and riding trail is in the works.

There are some restrictions on use. For example, the competition rings are off limits to the public, to preserve their carefully maintained footing.

“Anybody can go on that piece of property,” notes San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition president and local trainer John Berney. “Blenheim EquiSports really does work with the community. There is not one business owner that would want them to lose the agreement and have the shows stop being held here.”

John spoke of free movies, kids activities and other add-ons surrounding most of Blenheim’s USEF-rated shows, plus the Park’s role as host to regional championships and various equestrian events, and as an evacuation center during natural disasters.

He understands that some members of the new City Council may envision more multi-purpose uses for the Park. John expects that many of their concerns will be resolved when they learn more about what the Riding Park and Blenheim EquiSports have brought to the city. During the meeting, for example, there were mentions of the City taking over the horse shows and the Park’s management, but no comments on how they would get the USEF show dates involved or the money to pay for upkeep and improvements that are now part of Blenheim Facility Management’s arrangement.

News of a threat to the Riding Park’s future spread fast on social media. It happened just as Blenheim EquiSports’ Melissa Brandes was returning from the Las Vegas National to what she hoped would be a relatively calm period at the end of the show season.

With many years’ experience in similar situations, Melissa emphasized the importance of an organized, yet positive approach from equestrians. “We’ve been managing this place since 1999 and we take a great deal of pride in how we do that. We are here to work with the City, the equestrians and all the constituents of the city. We want to be good stewards of the land and to provide the most we can for everyone in the City.”

The 2016 show schedule remains intact, she emphasized.

The next San Juan Capistrano Parks & Rec meeting will be Dec. 21, and the November 17 meeting can be viewed online through the City’s website, For more information on supporting the Riding Park management agreement renewal, visit the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition at