By C. Jayden Smith
South Orange County Cars and Coffee will now officially be permitted to run weekly instead of seasonally, per a unanimous vote from the San Clemente Planning Commission last week.
The popular Saturday morning event was approved as part of a request from the Outlets at San Clemente to expand its conditional use permit (CUP) to hold several outdoor events, which previously allowed the car show to run twice per year in an official capacity.
Throughout the discussion, commissioners expressed their confidence in how well the Cars and Coffee operators ran their events and weighed it against concerns for public safety.
One of the conditions for allowing the car show is having at least four security staffers present during events. Commissioners recommended the organizers direct participating cars to enter through the parking area near Chick-fil-A and travel along the back of the main structure.
Commissioner Cameron Cosgrove added two extra stipulations: that the community development director, San Clemente’s Police Services chief, and Outlets security officials annually update and review the event’s safety plan, and that the show operators expand their efforts to inform participants of how to behave after leaving the property.
“Anytime we can create a rubric where we can have a better engagement between your organization and our general public, where there might be some questions or issues that they want addressed, having that formalized would go a long way,” Cosgrove said.
The agreed-upon conditions were a compromise from the initial city staff report and recommendation, which proposed permitting events weekly from April to September and biweekly between October and March, also mandating participants to enter along the rear of the Outlets.
Neighboring residents’ complaints about noise related to the cars exiting the show held significant weight for the commissioners, as they had received at least 12 letters prior to discussing the CUP on Dec. 7.
Cosgrove asked for patience from the audience regarding the agenda item, as he felt residents had valid worries.
“Please understand that there are community members who are questioning, ‘Why does this happen every week outside of the current permit?’ ” he said. “That’s legitimate.”
Susan Jennrich, the Outlets general manager, told the commission that the show has had a “tremendous, positive impact” for both the shopping center and the city in terms of driving revenue and attracting visitors.
She added that limiting the event would negatively impact families, customers, the city and Outlets tenants, who, according to her, generate 20% of their sales on Saturday mornings.
Cars and Coffee co-founder James Wehr also spoke during the public hearing. He maintained the intensity with which the organization addresses public safety, referencing the 30 volunteers who are on-site for each event to deter recklessness and who receive pre-event briefings.
Wehr said they have worked with the Outlets’ new security manager, Michael Muscarella, to reduce noise and improve traffic flow. The organization’s social media also regularly posts reminders of event rules that prohibit speeding and burning out tires.
“We’re constantly contacted by other events around the world asking how we’re able to run such a tight ship,” said Wehr. “The answer is simple: planning, communication, attention to detail, and a lot of hard work.”
Wehr, who moved to San Clemente from Australia in 2010, added that his family is proud of creating an event that is significant for families and friends to attend, and that the process has been a “labor of love” to finally construct a plan allowing for free-flowing movement and noise abatement.
“Please note the pending conditional use permit is only requesting what we’ve done since the inception of this event in 2017,” Wehr said. “We’re not asking for an increase in frequency or anything; we’re simply asking to continue what we’ve been successfully running for the last several years.”
The commissioners learned that it was difficult to limit an event to a certain type of car because of a wide age range, that event staff were trained how to take pictures of license plates to identify and ban violators, and that four Outlets security personnel including an on-duty manager are posted near the Starbucks in front, ready to get involved, if necessary.
Muscarella said it is rare that his staff is needed and that he was open to having a deputy from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department stationed at or near the event.
Cosgrove and Commissioner Karen Prescott-Loeffler were adamant in wanting a deputy present as a key part of ensuring safety for show participants and vehicles.
Deputies haven’t been aware of significant altercations other than one that occurred in March of this year, according to Deputy Sheriff Joshua Roberts. He added that they already are aware of the event during Saturday mornings and maintain a presence near the Outlets.
Most complaints, he said, are related to people leaving the car show on Avenida Vista Hermosa, but there are not many preventative measures beyond stopping drivers when deputies see violations.
He added that regarding noise and loud exhaust systems, the most common offense to cite is when cars make unusual noises that are against the California Vehicle Code.
Wehr said it would be difficult to find costs to pay $400 for a deputy to work overtime at the Outlets from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, given that the money Cars and Coffee makes from merchandise sales and sponsorships is just enough to cover operating costs.
Cosgrove, however, directed staff to note a preference to have a deputy near the Outlets, if possible.
Commissioner Steven Camp expressed his concern about potential traffic impacts if show participants get clogged into Vista Hermosa and near the freeway exit while trying to enter the parking lot.
Regardless, he agreed with Cars and Coffee supporters that events should be weekly, saying that a lower frequency would mess with the event’s rhythm and bring people to the Outlets even on weekends when events wouldn’t be scheduled.
“I think the regularity of the event is what brings the excitement,” said Camp.
Within the amended CUP, the Planning Commission also allowed the Outlets to hold biweekly food distributions and seasonal partnership events, such as “Trunk or Treat” near Halloween.
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.
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