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El Morro Seeks to Stave Off Eviction

The trailer park group is offering some costly incentives in hopes of extending its lease for 30 years in what will be a state park.

May 13, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

In a bid to stay in their seaside trailer park another 30 years, residents of El Morro Village are waging a well-financed campaign created by consultants that includes full-page ads, a lawsuit and a plan to forestall its conversion into a campground in Crystal Cove State Park.

The ads in Orange County weekly newspapers, which have run since February, describe the plan: a possible windfall of millions of dollars for California, a partial solution to the low-cost-housing crunch in Laguna Beach, and an initial $10 million in private funds to help restore 1920s-era cottages at Crystal Cove.

State parks officials say the El Morro Village Community Assn. is wasting its money. Crystal Cove's cottage restoration and El Morro's conversion from a mobile home park to a campground are fully funded by state bonds and not at risk from state budget cuts. They say they won't delay giving the public access to a park in the making for more than 20 years.

But El Morro residents, whose leases expire at the end of 2004, have drawn the attention and support of some community leaders.

Assemblywoman Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) wrote to acting state parks Director Ruth Coleman about the state's plan to turn the mobile home park into a campground and RV park, which would be near El Morro Elementary School.

"I have grave concerns regarding the placement of a transient campground next to an elementary school," Bates wrote. "The [Parks] Department's own public safety report, dated August 2001, would seem to reinforce my concerns. It shows a 49% increase in crime, from 1997 to 2000, in what the Parks Department calls its Orange Coast district."

The planned campground also is opposed by the PTAs of two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school in Laguna Beach.

Roy Stearns, deputy director of the parks department, defended campers. "People who drive RVs are the same quality citizens that are presently living in permanent motor homes on this land. If the suggestion here is that RV campers are some kind of low-life not to be put next to a school, they are sadly mistaken."

Bates has joined supporters of the alternative plan, and suggests there are plenty of other sites in nearly 3,000 acres of parkland for the state's RV park and campground.

But Stearns said the agency wants "coastal camping, where people have immediate access to the coastline, just as these residents have had for decades."

The war of words has intensified recently as the eviction deadline of Dec. 31, 2004, approaches for El Morro residents to leave the community in the hills and bluffs overlooking the ocean. The 10 acres that hold about 295 mobile homes were included in a state purchase of 2,791 acres in 1979, including the cottages at Crystal Cove. Cottage residents won several lease extensions, but finally were evicted in June 2002. The mobile home park residents won a 20-year stay and then a five-year delay in 1999.

The El Morro Village Community Assn., which considers it likely that the seaside trailers will revert to the state, wants to extend the leases for about 222 mobile homes on the inland side of the park. The group sued the state, contending it did not follow the California Environmental Quality Act in its environmental impact report for the park. The suit, filed in September 2002 in Orange County Superior Court, is scheduled for a hearing July 7, he said.

The association hired First Strategies, a consulting firm led by Denny Freidenrich and Paul Freeman, a former Laguna Beach city councilman. After a year of discussions with city officials, community leaders, environmental groups and state legislators, they crafted the alternative plan to the eviction that includes the 30-year lease extension and funding 50 new units of low-cost housing on park land immediately that would expand to about 272 when the leases expire.

Former Laguna Beach Mayor Kathleen Blackburn said she is intrigued by the low-cost-housing component of the plan.

"I don't know the details of the plan, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to speak on the specifics," she said. "All I know is Laguna Beach needs affordable housing, and if this is a way for us to get that, then it is something we should be looking at."

Freidenrich said several hundred people have returned coupons accompanying the newspaper ads saying they support the alternative. When First Strategies unveiled its plan in January, "I admitted we had a very steep mountain to climb," Freidenrich said. "But today ... our climb doesn't look that long or steep."

There is no official accounting of how much the community association is spending on its campaign, but opponents say the legal fees, professional consulting company and ads suggest it has deep pockets.

It doesn't matter, Stearns said. "It's a state park, and these people are living in a state park, and that's not an acceptable long-term solution for the taxpayers and the park visitors of the state."

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