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Park Threatens Gating of Community : Neighborhoods: Pricey El Niguel Heights seeks to be enclosed and guarded. But a small play area within it is public--and a Laguna Niguel group sues to stop the plan.


LAGUNA NIGUEL — El Niguel Heights wants only what 12 other exclusive housing developments already have in this pricey Orange County community--guards and automated gates.

The problem is, Seminole Park sits within the tract. And the little grassy patch with a swing set for children belongs to the public.

A group of Laguna Niguel residents have filed a suit in Orange County Superior Court against the El Niguel Heights Homeowners Assn., contending that gates and guards would block access to the park and, in effect, be a confiscation of public property.

"Nobody is against gating private property. It's when public property is gated that we have a problem," said Paul Christiansen, a former city councilman and co-founder of a group trying to halt what members see as a national trend toward gating public parks and trails.

"For a security guard to monitor who uses a public park we feel is against the American way," said Christiansen of the Park Access Restoration Committee.

However, the majority of El Niguel Heights residents who overwhelmingly voted in spring 1994 for the gates call the park issue a red herring.

At the city's insistence, they have agreed to offer public access to the two-acre park from dawn to dusk and to pay an extra $50 monthly fee per homeowner to maintain the park and the streets within El Niguel Heights.

"Anybody who wants to use the park can use it," said Gary Moorhead, an attorney and a member of the association's board of directors. "Unless somebody wants to go to the park at 3 a.m., which we don't want to encourage, they will have access."

The problem surfaced more than a year ago when the association applied for permission to install gates at its two entrances.

Eighteen-year-old El Niguel Heights, where the 250 homes range from $350,000 to $550,000 in value, sits on a hilltop about two miles from the Pacific Ocean. Residents enjoy sweeping views of the twin Saddleback peaks and tony El Niguel Country Club.

Gates would not only bring El Niguel Heights extra security but much greater property values, Moorhead said, pointing out that nearly every neighboring development is gated.

"We are competing with neighborhoods directly adjacent to our community which are gate-guarded and whose property values are substantially higher than ours," said Moorhead, who has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years. "That's in a large part due to the gates."

The desire to live behind gates is becoming increasingly common throughout the nation, where about 4 million people live in gate-guarded communities.

But adding gates to an established community, such as El Niguel Heights, is provoking costly lawsuits pitting one neighbor against another.

In one celebrated case in the historic Hollywood Hills enclave of Whitley Heights, a neighborhood east of the Hollywood Bowl, residents were forced to dismantle the gates and pay legal fees--a combined cost of more than $300,000--after neighbors charged that the gates prevented people from using public streets.

The city of Laguna Niguel has tried to sidestep that issue by requiring El Niguel Heights to take over the ownership of the streets within the neighborhood's boundaries, said Laguna Niguel City Manager Tim Casey.

The city has drafted guidelines for all communities seeking gates that includes not only privatizing the streets but ensuring public access to any parks or public areas inside their boundaries, Casey said.

Among the reasons the city saw fit to approve the gates was that Seminole Park was designed as a neighborhood park, little more than a grassy knoll with a swing set, Casey said. There are no public facilities, no outdoor lights, no drinking fountains or bathrooms.

"Seminole Park was dedicated many moons ago to meet the park code requirements for the El Niguel Heights subdivision," Casey said.

"The homeowners association must provide public access, unrestricted, during normal daylight hours. . . . We tried to balance the two issues: the desire to add gates and public access," he added.

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