The outside world could come charging through the security gates of Coto de Caza in the shape of 20 modular classrooms for a new public school that could open as early as next year.
But the preliminary plans to install the newest campus in the Capistrano Unified School District have drawn attacks both from residents, who say it would undermine the privacy and security of the private foothill enclave, and outsiders who say putting a public school there could be downright illegal.
If approved, the 400-student campus could be the first public school statewide to be built in a gated community.
"I'm flabbergasted," said Edward Blakely, a USC professor of urban planning who co-wrote a book on gated communities. "This would violate civil rights and constitutional provisions."
The school proposal is dividing residents in this area east of Mission Viejo. Some parents helped broker the land deal to get the campus. Other residents predict a public school would allow almost anybody into the community, and if ultimately found unlawful, could eventually force removal of the gates.
"No one can guarantee us that someone couldn't sue and the gates won't come down," said Karen Rose, a nine-year Coto resident. "This is a huge, huge issue, and nobody did their homework."
The issue drew at least 100 people to a homeowners association meeting last week. The debate will culminate in a March 3 community-wide vote to decide if the school project goes forward.
In a letter opposing the school project sent to other Coto dwellers, Bob and Le Ann Ricks wrote: "The fact is, there is no legal precedent for this matter. . . . What if a court orders that the gates be taken down? What then will distinguish Coto de Caza from any of the surrounding areas?" As of Friday, three people said they want the school built and 106 don't, the letter says. Another 120 residents support the March vote, but are undecided on the issue.
Homeowners on both sides of the debate, as well as school officials, will spend the next three months discussing the heart of the conflict: Is a public school equally accessible to all taxpayers if it is fenced in by security gates? Is it really, well, public?
"Americans are blurring the lines between private and public," said Andrew Stark, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto, who has written extensively on gated communities.
"This seems to me to be a bold attempt at the local level to try to cross the line between public and private rights," Stark said.
Similar concerns have been raised elsewhere in California, considered the hub of walled neighborhoods.
* Hidden Hills, an incorporated, gated city in the western San Fernando Valley, moved its City Hall just outside its gates to allow free access to the building and, of course, to keep nonresidents at bay.
* Fences surrounding the Whitley Heights area in Hollywood were torn down in 1994 after a Superior Court judge ruled that the gates barricaded public streets and violated state vehicle codes. That decision stated that a city cannot place devices that "deny or restrict the access of certain members of the public, while permitting others unrestricted access."
* In the Silver Creek Country Club near San Jose, a public elementary school was built just outside the gates to avoid any legal challenges. The local developer, Shea Homes, donated land to the San Jose Unified School District for the campus.
"We didn't even consider building a public school in our community," said Joanne Anderson, the vice president of sales and marketing for Shea Homes. "That wouldn't be right."
Capistrano Unified officials contend that the Coto project, which would enroll mostly children who live in the gated community, is legal.
"You can't have a public school becoming a part of a community exclusively for the use of a few people," Supt. James A. Fleming said. He said the district's lease allows any member of the public who wants access to the school to simply tell the gate guards he or she is headed to the campus.
But the proposed lease permits access only to the school community--students, parents, school district employees and elected officials--during school hours, according to a draft obtained by The Times.
Fleming said the district's legal counsel has assured him that the wording would allow anyone with business at the school to get in.
About 35,000 guest passes per month are distributed to non-Coto residents to drive past the gates of this community of 10,000 residents. Besides construction workers, maids and gardeners, visitors to Coto's restaurant and two golf courses use the passes.
Parents of students who attend the private elementary campus in Coto, Merryhill School, have the same access cards that are distributed to residents. And anyone wanting to visit the fire station is guaranteed admittance, no questions asked; its meeting room is rented out to nonresidents on a regular basis.