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Orange County

El Morro Residents Labor to Stay Put

Plan allowing trailer dwellers to remain in state park includes creation of affordable housing. Park advocates assail their offer.

January 24, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Facing eviction by the end of 2004, mobile home residents on the prime coastal real estate of Crystal Cove State Park floated a plan Thursday that would let them keep most of their trailers an additional 30 years.

The proposal by El Morro Village residents, which would include building 50 affordable apartments in the area south of Corona del Mar and possibly generate park restoration funds, was immediately denounced by parks officials and Orange County environmentalists.

"It's another attempt to keep the El Morro residents living in a state park for another 30 years or longer," said Roy Stearns, deputy director of the Department of Parks and Recreation. "How long should the public be shut out of a state park?"

El Morro Village is a collection of 295 mobile homes on the beach and in the bluffs across Pacific Coast Highway. The 1940s-era trailers are on a small part of the 2,700-acre state park, and the state has ordered residents to leave by December 2004 to make way for a campground with picnic tables, campsites and a recreational vehicle park.

The majority of El Morro residents pay $300 to $700 a month in rent, with a few paying more than $800, and they have fought to stay put.

Last year, the state rejected a proposal by former Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine) to extend the leases for 10 years, increase the rents and use the money to fund restoration.

The latest plan, prepared by a private consulting firm hired by the El Morro Village Community Assn., suggests building apartments on the inland side of the park, extending existing leases for 30 years, then turning over the mobile homes to Laguna Beach to house city workers -- including police officers and firefighters -- plus teachers, artists and seniors. Homes on the beach side of the park were not addressed in the proposal.

The plan emphasized potential benefits to the community and the state, including filling an affordable housing gap in Laguna Beach, generating money to restore historic cove residences and providing $1 million a year to the California State Parks Foundation and Laguna Greenbelt Inc., two prominent environmental groups instrumental in the state's effort to open the park to the public.

Stearns agreed there is a critical need for affordable housing, in Orange County and around the state. But he said, "Do the people of California want affordable housing in their state parks? That is not an appropriate place."

Representatives of both environmental groups were incensed at the plan.

Susan Smartt, president of the parks foundation, said use of the foundation's name on a proposal that they oppose is "outrageous."

Elisabeth Brown, president of Laguna Greenbelt Inc., said, "They have a huge amount of nerve proposing land use on land they don't own. This is just a transparent attempt to stay in the trailers longer."

Denny Friedenrich, co-owner of the consulting firm First Strategies, admitted the proposal faces an uphill battle.

"We don't have any illusions. A number of very fine people [and] organizations have already expressed their concerns and opposition to anything but what is part of the old 1982 General Plan. [However] within those organizations there are individuals that do support the new plan."

Friedenrich said the El Morro group hopes to present the proposal as an agenda item to the Laguna Beach City Council within 60 days.

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