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Laguna Niguel Groups Draw Battle Lines on Cityhood Step

January 13, 1986|ROBERT SCHWARTZ | Times Staff Writer

Laguna Niguel, a sprawling planned community of about 26,000, soon could become the second large chunk of south Orange County to take a major step toward cityhood since the county Board of Supervisors' vote a year ago to cut funds for services to unincorporated communities.

Last November, Mission Viejo residents voted to form a community services district and take over the administration of street-sweeping, landscaping, recreation and street-lighting services that until then were all being provided by the county. A five-member board of directors was inaugurated last week and will take over the services in July.

Now, Laguna Niguel is in the midst of a communitywide debate on the issue that is beginning to heat up. While the services-district concept was adopted without much opposition in Mission Viejo--a homogeneous community master-planned by a single development company--residents of Laguna Niguel, a hodgepodge of smaller developments stretching from the coast through rolling hills to the San Diego Freeway, are having a harder time reaching a consensus.

'Feelings Are Very Strong'

How property taxes are spent, property values and a good deal of community pride are at stake, said Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, whose district includes Laguna Niguel.

"Something is being heatedly debated, and the feelings are very strong," Riley said. "People don't like change, and I have no doubts from my experience that this is a very, very important decision. Boundaries are being set, and (they) could determine whether you live in a coastal community or not."

The Laguna Niguel Community Council--a semi-official body that speaks for Laguna Niguel in county matters--asked the Board of Supervisors last October to begin proceedings for the formation of a Laguna Niguel Community Services District, and the proposal, if it is approved by the county's Local Agency Formation Commission next month and then by the supervisors, could be presented to area voters on the June ballot.

Separate Coastal District

Some residents of coastal neighborhoods want to split off from the rest of Laguna Niguel and possibly form their own district. Others are worried that a new district might not be able to afford skyrocketing liability insurance premiums--if insurance can be obtained at all.

At stake is about $1.2 million a year in locally generated property taxes. That is the amount that Laguna Niguel property owners pay into a countywide fund set up after the passage in 1978 of Proposition 13 to help special service districts balance their budgets. Until this fiscal year, Laguna Niguel could, with the approval of the supervisors, draw on that money to keep its slopes green and baseball diamonds manicured. But last February the Board of Supervisors said the $45-million special fund would be used for services, such as fire protection, that benefit the entire county and could no longer be used to subsidize strictly local services.

However, the $1.2 million would stay in Laguna Niguel if the community services district were created. While services could probably be maintained at current levels for another two years even without the windfall, "we do have a number of uses in Laguna Niguel for that money right now," Community Council member Bob Hurst said. "Our Little League is turning kids away, soccer is crowded and it's time our parks grew a little bit," he said.

If the election is delayed beyond June, Hurst said, the community will lose the $1.2 million for fiscal year 1986-87, which begins July 1.

Maintenance Services

The new district, as proposed by the Board of Supervisors, would provide street-sweeping, slope, median and parkway landscaping, parks and recreation and street-lighting services, said Robert Hamilton, special districts administrator for the county's Environmental Management Agency. Other services--such as fire and police protection, libraries and road maintenance--would continue to be provided by the county. The new district could provide such services only if first approved by voters in a future election, Hamilton said.

The new district could not raise property taxes, but it could levy benefit assessments or user fees for services without voter approval.

Community services districts are often referred to as "junior cities," as they offer so many of the same services as a city and are considered by the Local Agency Formation Commission to lay out the boundaries for future incorporation, commission executive director Richard Turner said.

But Laguna Niguel residents are divided over what the boundaries of the possible future city should be.

Some Favor County Tie

Some residents support the local council's proposal to form one large services district encompassing all of Laguna Niguel, plus parts of the Bear Brand Ranch and Nellie Gail developments. Others, mostly from the coastal neighborhoods, want to divide Laguna Niguel into two districts--one inland and one on the coast, with Clubhouse Drive as the most likely boundary.

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