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El Morro Residents Find Ally for Battle

Land use: Irvine assemblyman's bill would extend mobile home park leases to fund Crystal Cove repairs.


Tenants of El Morro mobile home park have found a powerful new ally in their fight to stop the state from evicting them in three years from their cozy homes on coastal bluffs overlooking the Pacific.

Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine) is proposing to introduce a bill that would extend their leases for 10 years on land bought by the state in 1979 between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar. Campbell proposes increasing rent, and using the additional money to pay for restoration of the nearby historic cottage district in Crystal Cove State Park.

"My interest in this is really driven by my desire to see those cottages restored and to see that area of Crystal Cove brought to where it could be," Campbell said.

Renovation of the historic district could cost as much as $15 million, said state parks spokesman Roy Stearns. The 46 ramshackle cottages that dot the state beach are on the National Register of Historic Places as the last intact example of a 1920s-era Southern California beach colony.

After a long battle, cottage tenants were evicted in July. The state is planning the area's future.

But state parks, other state agencies and environmentalists have lined up against Campbell's proposal, saying it's nothing more than an excuse to keep public land a private enclave for the privileged few lucky enough to own or rent a mobile home there.

"It's public parkland and ought to be available to all the public--not just the people who have been fortunate enough to live there and have exclusive use of it," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission. "It needs to be opened up and restored for general public use as soon as possible."

The mobile home park and the historic district are part of Crystal Cove State Park, which the state bought in 1979 for $32.5 million from the Irvine Co.

The 294 tenants at El Morro pay rents for their spaces that range from $300 to $700 a month while living in one of Orange County's most picturesque spots. Campbell's plan would as much as double that.

The state has been considering removing the trailers since a 1982 master plan was adopted for the Crystal Cove area. The park is to be turned into an RV and camping site and picnic spot. But the proposal has taken on new urgency because parks officials say they now have the $12 million needed to create the recreation area.

But the proposal for an RV park has brought its own, separate controversy, with parents and others in the Laguna Beach area worried that it might bring transients right next to El Morro Elementary School.

Though Campbell says he is driven by the need to restore the cottages, he also sympathizes with the tenants' concerns.

"It's not unusual in either national parks or state parks for there to be some people living there. I don't think I would say absolutely El Morro should go in 10 years, or something to that effect," he said. "If we do a 10-year extension, we could look at it again then."

He also has concerns about the state's plan to place an RV park next to El Morro Elementary School.

"I'm not sure that many people in the community think it's a very good community asset with a school right there," he said. "We're talking about a lot of RVs rumbling through Laguna Beach on Coast Highway and through Corona del Mar. Those roads are very narrow and congested. I don't think that's a very good idea, period."

Tenants say the 1982 general plan is outdated, and didn't allow for public testimony.

"The state has never allowed us to meet with them to discuss alternatives," said Rolly Pulaski, president of the El Morro Village Community Assn.

"The proposal that [Campbell] came up with is fiscally responsible," he said. "It provides greater access to the public, yet without taking away the golden egg."

The residents pay a total of about $800,000 annually, but the money goes into the state's general fund, Stearns said.

Campbell proposes increasing rents and giving the excess to state parks. But state parks officials say that despite California's fiscal woes, there are plenty of potential funding sources, including a $2.6-billion parks bond that will be on the March ballot, of which state parks would receive $225 million. In addition there is money from the California Coastal Conservancy, and private donations.

"It's a high enough priority in state parks that it's not going to fall through the cracks," Stearns said.

But Campbell said none of this funding is guaranteed. Campbell said he will file the proposed legislation by February if state officials haven't shown him secure financing.

"To critics of [my] proposal, I keep asking them to show me the money. Show me where we're going to have any money, given the current budget situation, to restore these in the next two, three, four or five years."

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