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Lawmaker's El Morro Bills Follow Gifts

The assemblyman whose legislation would halt eviction has received funds from trailer park residents and the leaseholder.

February 27, 2005|David Reyes and Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writers

A freshman assemblyman from Orange County has introduced two bills to halt evictions of mobile-home tenants within Crystal Cove State Park after receiving about $66,000 in campaign donations and loans from residents, a businessman who holds the trailer park lease and his relatives.

State campaign records show the donations and loans were received by Republican Chuck DeVore of Irvine, who has found himself in the middle of one of Southern California's longest-running disputes over public beaches.

At issue is the El Morro trailer park, located at the southern end of the 3.5-mile stretch of mostly undeveloped beachfront south of Corona del Mar. After buying Crystal Cove from the Irvine Co. 26 years ago, the state allowed tenants of El Morro to remain until this year. Now it wants to make good on plans to clear the site for public use.

Mobile home residents who want to remain are fighting the state. Environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation and Laguna Greenbelt, support the state.

Six weeks after taking office, DeVore introduced legislation to extend the leases of 275 El Morro tenants from 10 to 30 years and to delay state plans to convert the private trailer park to public use.Opponents of the measures question whether the bills are special-interest legislation designed to benefit DeVore's financial backers.

DeVore insists the bills are intended to help reduce the state budget deficit and assist the state park system, which now faces a $900-million maintenance backlog.

"I was sent to Sacramento to make tough decisions. I knew full well this was going to be a buzz saw," said DeVore, who defeated Democrat Carl Mariz in the November election. "This is a valuable asset for the state. If there were no deficit this would not have happened."

DeVore received a series of loans from members of the family of Roberto G. Brutocao, DeVore's campaign finance chairman and, according to state officials, one of the signatories of the master tenant lease for the trailer park. Brutocao is also an executive with Suncoast Properties Inc., an Irvine company that manages the 32-acre trailer park.

According to DeVore's latest campaign statements, he still owes the Brutocaos about $29,000, out of an outstanding loan balance of about $150,000. Most of the debt is from DeVore lending his own money to the campaign.

Brutocao could not be reached for comment.

DeVore also received $26,000 in donations and $6,400 in loans from park residents and other interests with ties to the trailer park.

The donations and loans don't appear to have broken campaign laws, said Robert M. Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "But it's clearly special legislation for a special contributor," Stern said, adding that "you can get a lot of gratitude" for that amount of money.

DeVore also said it was unfair to characterize the Brutocao loans as stemming only from Roberto Brutocao's interest in El Morro. He described the extended family as conservative and Catholic and said that they supported his antiabortion views. The other members of the family had nothing to do with the mobile home park, DeVore said.

When the state acquired Crystal Cove in 1979, many El Morro tenants signed 20-year leases; in 1999, the leases were extended five years. After several unsuccessful court challenges, the tenants were notified by the state that their leases expired Dec. 31, 2004.

About 10% of the residents signed an agreement allowing them to stay until April 1 in exchange for paying $3,000 in advance to cover the cost of mobile home removal and demolition, plus water and utility bills. About 275 tenants decided to remain and fight their evictions in court.

DeVore's two bills would allow tenants to stay for decades to come.

Under AB 328, tenants would be allowed 30-year lease extensions in exchange for paying the state $50 million and agreeing to rent increases at market rates. DeVore's second bill, AB 329, calls for the $50-million payment and rents totaling $3.2 million annually, nearly three times the amount tenants were paying under their expired leases.

Claire Schlotterbeck, a consultant with Laguna Greenbelt and Friends of Newport Coast, said DeVore's motives for pursuing the legislation were "suspicious."

""With all of the pressing issues in the state, this is the highest thing on his platter?" she said. "This is a silly skirmish on behalf of a lucky handful who have had a sweet deal for 25 years."

When the Irvine Co. sold Crystal Cove to the state, the intent was to make the entire property a public park, said heiress Joan Irvine Smith, a former company board member who called DeVore's proposals "lunacy."

"It's time the public had the access to what belongs to them," Smith said. "I do not believe we should have private subdivisions in public parks. They don't belong there."

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