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A parking heaven for RV owners may soon be in limbo

Increasingly banned on city streets, the vehicles have a refuge at the old El Toro base -- for now.

June 25, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Bill Kogerman used to land his F-8 Crusader fighter jet on the runways of El Toro Marine base when he was stationed there in the 1960s and '70s.

These days, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel lives in Laguna Hills and is a member of Orange County's Great Park board of directors. He uses the same runway as a parking spot for his 35-foot, blue and white, dolphin-decaled recreational vehicle.

"It's nostalgic, but I did it mostly for the convenience," he said.

Kogerman is not alone. The expansive runways and taxiways of the former Marine base have become landing spots for more than 2,300 RVs, boats and a few cars.

At a time when many Southern California cities are banning RV parking on their streets -- even in driveways -- Irvine is welcoming Winnebagos, Coachmen and Holiday Ramblers to the ample stretches of concrete that are slated for demolition to make way for the 1,300-acre Great Park.

For $1.7 million a year, the city since 2005 has leased part of the runway space to All Star Services as a 55- to 65-acre parking lot. The company also leases acreage from Lennar Corp., which is developing the commercial and residential properties. The Orange County Great Park Corp. uses the money to maintain the grounds as it starts its massive transformation.

RV and storage industry experts said it may be the largest motor home storage facility in the country, and it has attracted RV owners from as far as Nevada, Wyoming and Germany.

"I've never seen anything even close to this size," said Bob Lee, 67, as he looked down a seemingly unending line of RVs parked in slanted rows. Lee, a transit supervisor from Mission Viejo, pays $145 a month to park his 34-foot Winnebago Adventurer on a former taxiway, taking it on weekend trips up the coast.

Irvine leases other parts of the base for recycling, strawberry and bean farming, and even test-car driving, but RV storage is the most lucrative, providing most of the $2.7 million the park brings in each year.

"We are trying to be good stewards of what we have and generate as much revenue as we can to offset our expenses," said Rod Cooper, operations manager for the Great Park Corp.

If all goes as planned, most of the base, which closed eight years ago, will be demolished, then sculpted, planted and irrigated into one of the largest municipal parks in the country, at an expected cost of more than $1 billion. The park will feature a tethered helium balloon ride, a man-made canyon, orchards and sports fields encircled by 3,600 houses and condos, along with commercial areas.

Those who park their RVs at the base say they'll be in a pinch to find another place to store their vehicles. "It's going to be quite chaotic," said Marti Rogna, manager of All Star Services. "I don't even want to think about it at this point."

California law prohibits street parking of oversized vehicles for more than 72 hours at a stretch. Twenty-two Orange County cities, including Irvine, have ordinances that further restrict RV and boat parking.

"It's an eyesore," said Larry Herman, a councilman in La Palma, which banned parked RVs and boats on the street or in driveways. The ordinance "really has improved the appearance of our city. You can look down the streets now and you don't see the big 35- and 40-footers people have today."

After La Palma's 2005 ban, residents of neighboring Buena Park started noticing more RVs moving onto their streets. This week the City Council will debate whether to enact its own ban.

"There's a definite sense that people are getting chased out," said Sue Bray, executive director of the Good Sam Club, a national RV owners group. "We don't want our streets to become storage lots, but with building going the way it is, a lot of people just don't have space to keep an RV even if it is permitted to be there."

Some owners are bracing for a run on space elsewhere when the El Toro RVs are given 30-day notice to leave. Some are considering heading to the Inland Empire or as far as Arizona to find a suitable spot for a reasonable price.

Irvine officials say they would like to keep the RVs around at least three more years. But there are no guarantees; the current contract runs through September.

Rogna, the lot manager, said her customers' top concern seems to be the future of their spaces. "They're always asking, 'How much longer?' "

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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