A horse stable at the Rancho Mission Viejo riding park in San Juan Capistrano. Another stable could be coming the city's way -- a developer has plans to build what could be the largest equestrian center in Orange County atop a buried landfill. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010 | San Juan Capistrano residents are concerned about the smells that might emanate from horse manure at a proposed multi-use development that includes what could become the largest equestrian center in Orange County.

But the Orange County Waste and Recycling Department is worried about a bigger, stinkier problem — the 225,000 cubic yards of garbage that sit under the planned development.

Advanced Real Estate Services, which has owned the site, called San Juan Meadows, since 2000 wants to put the development on top of the Forster Canyon Landfill. The plan is to place a clay-material landfill cap as a cover, then build, among other things, a 775-horse equestrian center.

The county owned and operated the landfill between 1958 and 1976. And though county officials assert that the landfill was properly closed, they think it should be left alone.

“There’s a reason why these former landfills … why things aren’t usually built on them,” said John Arnau, California Environmental Quality Act manager for the waste and recycling department.

Arnau and other county officials say toxic gases and volatile organic compounds could be lurking underground, and they are insisting on more rigorous soil testing despite assurances from Advanced Real Estate Services that its mitigation measures are adequate.

The reason for the county’s concern has to do with liability. Both the county and the developer are listed by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has authority over the site, as co-dischargers. This means that they’re both liable for the landfill excavation, Arnau said.

Concerns are heightened by the fact that the developer is also planning to build 94 single-family homes around the landfill site, with some as close as 30 feet away, county officials said.

“If everything happens in the [environmental impact report] the way [San Juan Capistrano] wrote it up, then I’m sure it will go great,” Arnau said. “The county doesn’t want to foot the bill for this project and more required mitigation.”

But it’s the “if” part that Arnau has a problem with.

Robb Cerruti, the developer’s vice president, said he relies on the expertise of a landfill consultant, Bryan A. Stirrat and Associates, for direction on closing the landfill. The consultant that made the estimates told the developer that a 34-year-old landfill won’t contain high levels of methane gas.

With that estimate in mind, the developer plans on using a system of pipes and wellheads to collect the gas and then run it through a filtration system, Cerruti said. Geosyntech, a consultant the county got to review the EIR, says if methane gas levels are higher than expected, the filtration system won’t get the job done.

The county’s concerns, which come in the form of a comments letter to the latest draft of the EIR, are not binding, and the regulatory agency that will be issuing the building permit is the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which will also be making evaluations on the mitigation measures, Arnau said.

“At the end of the day, the state is the one that will issue the permit,” Cerruti said.

Some residents are concerned about the manure that would affect the surrounding neighborhoods. One city resident, Richard Loverde, wrote this comment in response to the draft EIR: “The proposal of a 775 horse stable in the middle of a highly populated area is ludicrous. This stable will generate tons of Horse manure, billions of fly’s and ungodly odors that are just unacceptable.”

At least one City Council member expressed concern about the county’s timing, which seems last minute for a process that has been going on for 18 years.

Plans for development on the site have been evolving since 440 homes were approved for development on the site in 1992 — an approval Councilman Mark Nielsen said the county did not have much of a problem with back then. Although development plans fell through at that time, they were revived again in 2005.

“Something stinks,” Nielsen said. “And it’s not just the landfill.”

But the county insists its primary concern is financial and that it just doesn’t want to get stuck with the bill for additional mitigation measures. When the 1992 EIR was prepared, the county wasn’t listed as a co-discharger.

The final EIR hasn’t been approved yet, and the county is still working with the city and the developer to address its concerns. The San Juan Capistrano City Council is expected to give final approval to the project at its Aug. 3 meeting.

Arnau said that no matter what measures are taken, “it isn’t going to change the fact that we’d rather not see the houses there at all.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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