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Fate of the Earth Now in Question in Laguna Hills

Landmarks: Leisure World's long-dormant globe spun briefly in June. Its future revolves around liability issue.

September 30, 1996|FRANK MESSINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA HILLS — Alex Alexander looked on proudly as local dignitaries and residents gathered on a beautiful June morning to watch the Leisure World globe turn for the first time in two decades.

Little did the man who headed the drive to renovate the globe know that soon, the 32-foot-tall orb would turn no longer.

Except for a few days in June, the globe has been motionless because of concerns the unfenced South County landmark is a potential legal liability.

Nobody knows when it will spin again. Nobody is even willing to claim ownership of the globe, and the volunteers who raised $18,000 to renovate the giant metal sphere are doing a slow burn.

"It's very frustrating," said Alexander, a Leisure World resident. "I can't understand this stupid bureaucracy that's holding it up."

The globe hadn't been spinning for more than two decades when Alexander hatched a plan last year to paint the sphere, fix the floodlights that lit it at night and repair its motor.

A symbol of Leisure World developer Ross Cortese's dream to build retirement communities throughout the world, the globe's motor burned out in 1972 and company officials deemed it too expensive to replace.

But in its highly visible location on a grassy knoll next to Interstate 5 at El Toro Road, it continued to be seen by thousands of commuters daily, even as its paint faded and vandals broke its floodlights.

Alexander's plan gathered support from the Leisure World community, which contributed toward repair of the globe. A pair of Lake Forest electricians, Tom and Jim McConnell, put in many hours to repair its electrical system, and Leisure World helped organize fund-raising efforts.

In October 1995, the globe was ready to spin again. But bad luck struck the renovation effort--the replacement motor was too small.

In June, a public ceremony was held and before dozens of well-wishers, the huge metal ball began turning--but only for a few days, as a safety problem caused the globe to be shut down.

When it began spinning again two weeks later, motorists noticed it was turning in the wrong direction.

Finally, Leisure World officials decided the unfenced globe was too easily accessible to the public and posed potential liability problems.

And now even its ownership is in question. Leisure World officials say they gave the globe to the county several years ago. When Laguna Hills annexed North Laguna Hills from the county on July 1, the city took over the globe as well, Leisure World spokeswoman Tanya McElhaney said.

But Laguna Hills officials want no part of the globe.

"The globe doesn't represent Laguna Hills," City Councilwoman Melody Carruth said. "It represents Leisure World."

Don White, assistant city manager, said the city owns the land, but not the globe itself. "None of the paperwork we received show that the globe is ours," he said. "We don't own the globe."

So the once-celebrated return of the spinning world is in limbo (while an identical globe at Leisure World in Seal Beach keeps evolving without incident).

Laguna Hills officials are researching the ownership issue, but admit it isn't a high priority. McElhaney is looking into the cost of fencing and landscaping the quarter-acre strip where the globe is located, but said her office is understaffed and hasn't been able to move quickly on the issue.

And the volunteers continue to wait, their patience waning.

Jim McConnell said Leisure World officials should have considered the legal problems long before $18,000 was raised from the community and hundreds of hours spent repairing the globe.

"This was something that was big, it was a great thing for the community," he said. "I'm at a point where I'm humiliated because somebody didn't do their homework.

"I anticipate the moment when I get the phone call asking me, 'Can you turn it on today?' " he said. "All I wanted to do is do something nice for the community. It's frustrating because all I have to do is push a button" to get it spinning again.

However, another Leisure World official said the orb might end up someplace else.

Bob Ring, president of Leisure World's 6,100-unit condominium association, said the globe might be moved to the entrance of a Leisure World golf course as part of an ongoing renovation project.

"We may just move it back to Moulton [Parkway]," said Ring, who added that the Golden Rain Foundation would have to give its blessing. "We're trying to upgrade our image at Leisure World and the globe is our symbol."

As for the controversy over the globe, "I think there was a lot of enthusiasm for fixing it up, but no captains or general to run things," Ring said. "But I'm not embarrassed or anything because the globe looks nice now and we've brought people's attention to it."

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