LAGUNA NIGUEL — The disputed territory is only a few feet from some of the most expensive real estate in Southern California. The homes along Isle Vista Drive are valued between $1 million and $3 million. And the views are nothing short of spectacular.
The problem, homeowners say, is that outsiders feel increasingly entitled to share the breathtaking sunsets and glimpses of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island by parking on their exclusive street and walking to a popular park to take in the majestic scenery.
Isle Vista Drive is private, as are the Gatsby-like estates of the 161-member Monarch Point Homeowners Assn. that claim it as an address. But Badlands Park--one of the highest, most scenic points in Orange County--is public.
In 1992, the homeowners took the liberty of declaring their street off limits. They put up no parking signs and painted the curbs red to emphasize that most of Isle Vista Drive--the only access to the park--is private.
But as Orange County officials saw it, painting curbs and erecting signs went too far. So, they filed a lawsuit this month, seeking a permanent injunction against the association, as well as a $30,000 fine and payment of all legal costs. The homeowners' paint job and signs violate the California Coastal Act, the lawsuit alleges, and could be subject to fines of $10,000 a day for each day they violate the act.
The act seeks to protect access to publicly owned coastal areas such as Badlands Park.
"It's unfortunate that we had to press the point to litigation," said John Sibley, deputy director of the Orange County Environmental Management Agency, which made repeated demands to the homeowners to remove the no parking designations.
The association's attorney, William P. Hickey, counters that his clients obtained no permission for the red-painting from any governmental agency for the simple reason that "they just don't need it."
"We hope the county acts reasonably, but at this point, it's hard for us to tell why they're doing what they're doing," Hickey said.
The homeowners maintain that plenty of parking exists along the northern end of Isle Vista Drive and that declaring the curbed area near Badlands a no parking zone was based solely on safety--for park visitors and property owners.
The private street is the only access to the recreational facility, which has no parking lots. Residents say they are worried that public parking near the entrance could block emergency vehicles from reaching their homes.
"It's a school bus pickup area," Hickey said. "When cars are parked there, the cars of homeowners can't get through. Fire access is also an issue."
But public access to Badlands can reasonably be made only from Isle Vista Drive, the lawsuit maintains. Installation of the red paint and no parking signs "effectively denied the public access over Isle Vista Drive," the lawsuit says.
The signs and red curbs became an issue once before, in 1988, when the homes were about to be built. In anticipation, the developer put up signs and painted the curbs red. But as a condition of obtaining a coastal development permit, the developer agreed to remove the signs and paint, according to Edward N. Duran, deputy county counsel.
But by June, 1992, county officials discovered that the paint and no parking signs had reappeared, Duran said.
In spite of repeated demands by the county, the homeowners association has "refused to remove these obstructions," the lawsuit says.
Not everyone in the neighborhood agrees that parking on Isle Vista Drive is an evil.
Two residents who asked not to be quoted by name--for fear they would offend their neighbors--said they welcomed the park's daily visitors who use the Badlands trails to walk their dogs and that they did not perceive a safety problem with parked cars.
However, Joseph Potocki, a marketing consultant who lives on one of the estates, called the park an asset in every way except one.
"It would be a hazard to anybody coming out of the guarded-gate area if cars are allowed to park right there. There just isn't enough space," he said. "I find it difficult to believe that the county would favor that from a safety standpoint. It's too narrow a space. I don't think it's doable."
But the lawsuit seeks to eliminate the entire red-zoned area imposed by the residents, even near the entrance to the guarded gate, which is barely wide enough for a car.
"The association is eager to do the right thing," said Hickey, the homeowners' attorney. "We don't feel we're denying access to a public park and that we're complying with their request under the law and under the Coastal Act. Even now, visitors to the park have to walk maybe 50 feet.
"Why is the county so concerned about walking such a short distance in order to get to a hiking trail? Isn't \o7 walking \f7 the point here, anyway?"