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Seeking a New Lease on Trailer Park's Life : Development: Long battle to stay put continues for tenants of Laguna's scenic and low-rent Treasure Island. New owner's plans don't include them.


SOUTH LAGUNA — Perched atop bluffs that offer a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, Treasure Island mobile home park was once a seaside refuge for entertainers seeking rest and relaxation from the pressures of Hollywood.

The late gossip queen Hedda Hopper owned a trailer there, taking breaks from her society column to gaze out past pristine beaches to Santa Catalina Island. Another mobile home, once used by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the 1954 MGM movie "The Long, Long Trailer," now houses one of the park's current tenants.

Today the 28-acre seaside mobile home park is a hodgepodge of retirees living on fixed incomes, middle-income families, well-to-do professionals and entertainers. For some, Treasure Island is a full-time home. For others, such as the Duke's widow, Pilar Wayne, it is an occasional seaside getaway. For all, it offers rents that are widely considered a steal for prime oceanfront views in Laguna's inflated housing market.

As is often the case under mobile home ownership, Treasure Island residents own their trailers but not the land beneath them. They lease their spaces from the park owners.

But for more than a decade, the politically connected park tenants--backed by a slow-growth City Council--have clung to their unique slice of heaven, successfully fighting off attempts by two successive owners to close Treasure Island and build on the swath of land, one of the most valuable stretches of developable shoreline property in Laguna Beach.

The latest attempt is by the current owner, Costa Mesa-based developer Richard A. Hall, who has visions of condominiums and single-family homes. Those have been put on hold, pending the outcome of lease negotiations between Hall and park tenants.

Two months ago, the City Council stepped in, voting to rezone Laguna's three mobile home parks and designate them to remain used only as trailer parks. Although the vote carried out a plan drafted as part of the South Laguna annexation in 1988, the controversial decision had a significant impact on the current fray at Treasure Island. During a series of emotional public hearings, dozens of Treasure Island tenants testified that they were low-income and would be left homeless if management had its way.

In addition, in direct response to the Treasure Island dispute, the City Council ordered a 70-day moratorium on rent increases to remain in effect until park tenants and owners could agree on a new lease.

On Tuesday, the Treasure Island Residents Organization plans to ask the City Council to continue the rent freeze to Aug. 31 because talks have broken down between the two sides. Tenants also want the city to prohibit any retroactive rent increases, once the freeze expires.

Yet, some people outside the immediate conflict question the propriety of the city's intervention on behalf of the tenants' group. While rents at the park start as low as $400, some tenants are paying as much as $2,100 per month for their space, a rate that could hardly be considered low-income, critics say. Some of the park's part-time residents include entertainers, lawyers, judges, real estate developers and wealthy widows.

"It's a privilege to live there, let's face it," says Linda Gray, a Laguna Beach real estate agent. "We've got homeless people in Laguna, but we're not sticking them in oceanfronts."

"For most of us," she said, "if we find a good deal there is no guarantee that our landlord won't raise the rent or the building won't go condo. What makes those people any different?"

Recently, the owner, Hall, offered tenants a 10-year lease that would compensate them for their mobile homes and pay their relocation costs. But when the lease expired, they would have to move out. Many residents opposed a clause that would have allowed the owner to fine tenants who spoke out publicly against future development plans for the site.

In a vote taken two weeks ago, the tenants rejected the proposed lease agreement. All of the tenants now are on short-term leases.

"It was basically a contract to close the park," says Carol Broscheid, 53, who has lived at Treasure Island six years. "I don't want to have to move but I'm young enough so it wouldn't be such a tremendous hardship. But if I were an older person, I would dread leaving this place."

Yet Hall, who bought the park for $40 million last August in a partnership with Merrill Lynch, says he has been reasonable in offering tenants a long-term lease.

"I've got rights too, to get the best use out of my property," Hall said. "I can understand them not wanting to leave because this is a paradise for these people. But it's unrealistic to think it won't be developed."

On Friday, Hall offered an olive branch of sorts by circulating a one-page letter to tenants that invited them to attend a March 17 meeting to iron out differences.

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