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Answer to Speeding Problem Is Slow to Get to Coto de Caza

The unincorporated, gated community, facing a rising crash rate, seeks an enforcement strategy that residents are willing to live with.

January 23, 2006|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

The recent crash that killed a speeding teenager in a gated south Orange County enclave left behind skid marks and a devastated family and has rekindled debate about traffic control that mirrors concerns in private communities throughout the state.

Residents of gated neighborhoods have long complained about speeding and reckless driving. Because the streets are private, such neighborhoods are not entitled to traffic patrol by police, and many drivers feel emboldened to disregard stop signs and posted speed limits, residents say.

"It's a free-for-all," said Terry Corwin, a resident of Coto de Caza in the hills east of Mission Viejo, where a Dec. 7 crash killed 16-year-old Rianna Woolsey. "We got accident after accident after accident."

Driven by residents' complaints, some cities -- San Jose, Irvine and Thousand Oaks among them -- offer traffic patrol on private streets even if not legally required to do so. Private communities that can't -- or don't want -- police patrols resort to speed bumps and security guards.

Coto de Caza's experience underscores how elusive a solution can be.

The homeowners association that controls the main roads in the 5,000-acre community of golf courses, horse stables, tidy condominiums and expansive mansions tried issuing its own tickets. It didn't work.

"Some people paid the fines, but not many," said Jan Glisson, a former association board member. "It is a very involved process. You have to take people to Small Claims Court. And if they don't live here, then there is no way to go after them."

Glisson and others say distracted and reckless drivers routinely go 20 mph over the speed limit on the two- and four-lane main roads that loop through the development of 15,000 residents. They blow past stop signs and burn their tires on the pavement.

Eight years ago, the homeowners association installed speed bumps but was forced to remove them from the main roads because the county Fire Authority complained they interfered with emergency response times.

"I immediately noticed people speeding again," Glisson said.

So the homeowners association contracted with the California Highway Patrol. The community spent about $85,000 for a traffic survey and state-approved traffic signs on most of its roughly 10 miles of main roads where the maximum posted speed is 50 mph. In the first year, 2001, the CHP issued 1,154 tickets.

But the service cost Coto about $100,000 a year.

"It was extortion," said Bob Varo, president of the association board. "We shouldn't have to pay for something everyone else gets for free."

City police agencies typically do traffic patrol on private streets if frustrated residents complain and if the homeowners associations bring the streets and signs up to code. For instance, in Rancho Conejo Village, an 875-home community in Thousand Oaks, the association tried issuing its own tickets, but the toothless threat didn't stop speeders.

"They've tried things and finally realized that it just was not going to get it done," said Thousand Oaks Police Sgt. Bruce Watlangton, whose officers have enforced traffic in the development for two years.

Because Coto is in an unincorporated area and has private streets, it had to pay the Highway Patrol. Two years ago, when Varo and others were elected to the board, they decided not to renew the contract.

That was a big mistake, critics of the decision said. Speeds began creeping up again, residents say. Traffic crashes went from 19 in 2003, the last year the CHP patrolled Coto, to 28 in 2004. The number climbed to 30 last year, including Rianna's crash, which the CHP investigated and attributed to speeding.

Weeks after the accident, the skid marks are still there, and someone has carved the words "Peace Rianna" on the tree she crashed into.

Rianna's family has declined to comment. But her death has stirred criticism of the association board, and Varo in particular. The CHP returned to Coto the day after Rianna's accident on a temporary basis, but Varo insists that Coto needs a long-term solution.

Among the options the board is studying is to turn unincorporated Coto into a community service district. That could allow it to pay for police services using existing property tax revenues, Varo said.

Another option is to be annexed by the neighboring city of Rancho Santa Margarita, a long and complex process that would require the backing of Rancho officials and residents.

"Everything else is a Band-Aid," Varo said. "We pay millions in property taxes and we can't get a cop on our streets" without paying.

The Sheriff's Department patrols Coto for crimes, but it doesn't have the power to proactively enforce traffic laws in unincorporated areas. The county Board of Supervisors is considering a resolution that would allow sheriff's deputies to perform limited traffic enforcement as part of their crime patrols in unincorporated areas, including Coto.

But that's not enough, said Corwin, who is among a group of residents demanding that the CHP be contracted with again. She estimated the cost at less than $3 a month per household.

"Let's just pay it and call it a day," she said.

Corwin and others said the previous homeowners association board considered all options before settling on the Highway Patrol.

All except one.

The state attorney general's office, which was consulted on the issue, noted that if Coto de Caza tore down its gates and made its roads public, the community would qualify for Highway Patrol enforcement at no cost.

But that's unlikely. Glisson, the former board member, recalls that when some families proposed a public school inside Coto seven years ago, residents overwhelmingly rejected the idea for fear that it would mean the gates would have to go.

Removing the gates is not an option for the current board either.

"That's not going to happen," Varo said. "We don't want to lose our privacy."

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