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Crystal Cove Residents Try to Turn the Tide--Again : State parks: Lessees face a Sunday eviction deadline but want to stay until work begins on their bungalows. Original 10-year deal called for them to move in 1992.


CRYSTAL COVE — Peggy and Brent Ogden have spent more than a decade turning their house into a home. A bust of Beethoven is poised in the garden. Family photo collages adorn the fridge. A waist-high Tiki god guards their steep seaside perch.

Sitting around the Christmas tree in a living room that offers a stunning view of the blue Pacific lapping at the rugged coastline, the Ogdens hardly look like a couple facing a New Year's Eve eviction notice.

"We don't have a moving box out. Nothing's been packed," Peggy Ogden said with a shrug. "We don't even know where we would go if we had to."

At midnight Sunday, when many will be clinking their champagne glasses to ring in the New Year, about 75 Crystal Cove residents will be practicing a rite of their own: Fighting efforts to oust them from state park cottages on some of the most expensive real estate in Southern California--and leased to them for a fraction of market value.

State officials say residents must leave so they can begin plans to refurbish the 45 bungalows in Crystal Cove State Park and turn the area into a resort, where short stays could reach $400 a night.

But longtime cove residents, some of whom pay well below $500 a month to live on the stunning coastline, are understandably reluctant to leave the funky beach community listed with the National Register of Historic Places as "the last intact example of vernacular beach architecture."

That translates to a hodgepodge of structures ranging from shacks to posher quarters that fail to meet building codes.

Homes are still hooked to septic tanks, gardens are watered by hand--no sprinkler system here--and heat is provided by fireplace or electric space heater.

But residents willingly do without the niceties to live in an oceanfront enclave, where time seems to have been trapped. Indeed, a sign hanging outside an artist's studio asks visitors: "Please set your clocks back to 1930."

Since the 1920s, people have been drawn to the 12.3-acre cove between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar that on clear days offers a view of Santa Catalina Island and even San Clemente Island. The sentimental value is immense in this tiny community, where homes were built by hand and kept in families for as many as five generations. Neighbors are really an extended family.

"It's such a very special place," said artist Vivian Falzetti, who has lived at the cove for 18 years and has sand for a frontyard. "It wouldn't be logical for us to be picking up and heading out now. It's our home."

The cove was part of the vast Irvine Ranch until 1979, when the state paid $32.6 million--then the most expensive park purchase in California history--to buy the 1,896 acres that make up the state park. Some cottage residents held leases and others owned the dwellings outright, but nobody ever owned the land under the units.

The state's purchase threatened cove residents with eviction, but in 1982 a deal was negotiated to allow residents to live there 10 more years in exchange for giving up claims to the cottages.

In 1992, residents were granted a six-month reprieve. When that deadline rolled around, they sought the help of the county's powerful lobbyist and managed to get a 2 1/2-year extension. That extension runs out Sunday, and state officials say they are prepared to begin legal proceedings if residents will not go willingly.

Yet residents of this enclave tied together by narrow, twisting roads remain remarkably unruffled.

"Can you imagine 45 moving trucks trying to get down here?" said Peggy Ogden, who has lived at the cove for 12 years. "I don't know anyone who's actually packing up."

"I don't choose to see this eviction an inevitable," said Cinda Combs, a county librarian who first came to the cove to visit her grandmother's cottage in the 1940s and now has her own grandson for visits in a bungalow right next door.

Used as a backdrop for the movie "Beaches," every corner of the cove is marked by quaint and charming touches. There are the topiary dolphins wearing Santa hats. Holiday lights festoon a foot bridge and stairs in the center of the cove.

Just out of reach of the pounding waves, clusters of mock holiday gifts surround a flocked Christmas tree that gently sways with the ocean breeze, its ornaments twinkling in the midday sun.

"That's the community's tree. It's our way of celebrating this place," said resident Stella Hiatt, who has been living at the cove on and off since 1937, and, like the others, shows no sign of leaving.

Residents are framing their latest effort to stay put in economic terms: Why not let them remain for a few more months until the planning process is completed and work actually begins on the cottages, perhaps in mid-1996?

The state would continue to collect about $40,000 a month in rents, and residents would prevent vandalism and perform upkeep on the cottages, their argument goes.

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