LAGUNA NIGUEL — Since moving from Costa Mesa last year, attorney Paul Konapelsky has enjoyed a bird's-eye view of Monarch Bay from his hilltop home in the exclusive Bear Brand neighborhood.
But to Konapelsky's chagrin, his panoramic vista may soon be obscured by a maze of commercial buildings.
If a developer has his way, Konapelsky could be staring out his window at the tarred rooftop of a strip mall and a multiscreen theater, a two-level parking lot, a gas station and a 60-foot tower.
"I moved here to get away from all that," Konapelsky said.
So in a scene that has become increasingly common in fast-growing South County, Konapelsky sat down with neighbor Nancy James to plot a way to keep Shea Business Properties from putting in the 17-acre shopping center at the intersection of Street of the Golden Lantern and Camino del Avion, directly across the street from their half-million-dollar homes.
Increasingly, developers in South County are finding themselves at odds with the newly settled residents they wooed to the area with a promise of escaping the congestion, crime and pollution of North Orange County and Los Angeles.
And as many areas in South County approach build-out, local residents are seeing their quiet lifestyles in these upscale communities threatened by the same development they had sought to flee.
"It's going on all over," said Dana Point attorney Darrell Paul, who specializes in cases where development plans have threatened to obstruct the views of residents.
Ocean views, for instance, can add $50,000 or more to the price of a home, Paul said, and homeowners increasingly are willing to put up a fight to protect their investment.
"These people need to get downright nasty," Paul said, warning that if rampant development is not controlled, the Street of the Golden Lantern may become the next "Beach Boulevard South."
"They are spending a lot of money (for homes)," he said. "What they need to do is get together and get extremely diligent and aggressive. That's the only way they will be able to protect themselves."
One example of aggressive homeowner opposition ended two weeks ago when Los Angeles developer Clifford Ratkovich pulled out of a controversial bid to build a $55-million resort hotel complex overlooking the San Clemente pier.
Ratkovich met several times with residents, many of whom lived in new condominiums and would have lost their ocean view, but he backed out because he seemed to face insurmountable odds.
"We're not anti-development," said Evelyn Winkel, a real estate investor and head of the group that successfully blocked the project. "(But) we were concerned that the project was too large and the Pier Bowl area was going to lose its window to the sea."
The argument is similar in Bear Brand, where an additional 600 homes have yet to be built. Those homes would also overlook the shopping center, which is planned to include a medical building, two restaurants and an office complex in addition to the other businesses.
Once the shopping center is built, the proposed 50-foot-high theater and medical building will block the southern ocean view of many of Bear Brand's newer luxury custom homes, some of which cost in the $800,000 range.
Jack Godard, project manager for Shea Business Properties, conceded that the shopping center would cause some people to lose the ocean views for which they paid dearly. But he argued that the project would benefit, not detract from, the area.
"It's a pretty classy shopping center," Godard said. "It's the kind of thing you won't typically find in Orange County."
Like Ratkovich, Godard said he and other company representatives have already attempted to mollify irate residents by meeting with them and discussing their objections.
Another meeting with Konapelsky and James is scheduled for Thursday, he said. And architects are willing to use some of the residents' suggestions to seek a compromise.
Godard said developers are becoming more sensitive to residents' concerns.
"You will find that you (developers) will no longer be able to walk in (to city hall) with your first set of plans and say, 'Let's do it,' " Godard said. "It is foolish to work that way."
But Godard's opponents remain wary, despite his promise to listen to their concerns.
During one meeting, developers literally "wined and dined us and made it all nice," said James, a chiropractor who is head of the organization to fight the Shea plan. "They thought they could sweet-talk us, but it didn't work. We're smarter than that."
Since their first meeting with Shea in December, local residents circulated petitions and organized 70 people to attend a Laguna Niguel Planning Commission meeting last week. Another public hearing is scheduled by the Planning Commission on June 26.
Residents also complained that Shea is seeking a large number of "alternative design standards," meaning that the company is seeking permission to forgo dozens of height, density and parking restrictions.