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State Steps Up Beachfront Battle

Officials move to evict El Morro Village tenants whose leases have expired but won't leave.

[Article from the Los Angeles Times 1-24-2005]


From her living room window overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Naia Stevens has a panoramic view to fight for.

And that's what she's been doing, to protect her home from state officials who went to court last week to evict her and other residents of El Morro Village.

Thus opens the next -- and maybe last -- chapter in the legal tug of war between the state Department of Parks and Recreation and the residents of the 75-year-old, 295-space mobile home park between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar.

This is no ordinary trailer park. Its residents include not just blue collar retirees and the grandchildren of its founders, but also the retired president of the Irvine Co. and the man who once headed the state's lottery commission.

Tenants have long been on notice that their leases expired Dec. 31, in order for the state to convert the aging oceanfront development into part of Crystal Cove State Park. Citing various arguments -- including that the state hasn't followed proper eviction procedures -- 270 tenants have refused to leave.

On Thursday, the state attorney general's office filed "unlawful detainers" in Superior Court, opening the way for a process server to deliver eviction notices.

With the coming showdown, residents are deciding whether to give up the fight and move on, or dig in their heels for yet another courtroom confrontation.

"We're brokenhearted," said Kelly Heflin, whose husband, Gabriel, has lived at El Morro for 21 years. "We have not decided what to do. We just take it one day at a time."

But Stevens, 74, is standing firm. "My husband and I have been here 35 years," she said. "We've got four generations of our family living here."

State officials say there's no room for sentimentality.

"This is a classic landlord-tenant dispute that shouldn't drag on forever," said Ken Kramer, superintendent of Crystal Cove State Park.

The tenants' leases have expired, and "the people of the state of California should not be left with the burden of being locked out of their park," he said. With the mobile home residents having enjoyed decades of oceanfront pleasure, "it's now the public's turn."

The state plans this year to begin converting El Morro into a $13-million recreation facility with campgrounds, day-use picnic grounds, amphitheater and parking.

The evictions are the latest chapter for El Morro Village, which sits on 32 prime acres on the beach and along the edge of El Moro Canyon across Coast Highway.

For decades it has served as a vacation refuge for some, full-time residences for others and for everyone, a convivial place to socialize at sunset with neighbors who might as well be family.

Among the owners who face eviction are doctors, lawyers, teachers, retirees and business people. They include William Popejoy, the county's chief executive after its 1994 bankruptcy who later headed the state lottery commission, and Thomas H. Nielsen, former president of the Irvine Co., which sold the land to the state in 1979.

Many tenants at the time signed 20-year leases with the state and, in 1999, were given a five-year lease extension, which expired Dec. 31. About 10% of the residents signed an agreement with the state to be allowed 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.

The long-awaited eviction process against the others advanced after a federal judge on Jan. 14 rejected tenants' argument that removal or demolition of the trailers would violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act by disrupting a shorebird's habitat.

For its next step, the state filed unlawful detainer complaints last week. An eviction trial, in which a judge will decide whether the state has complied with state law, probably won't occur until March, said Gerald Klein, an attorney who said he expected to represent about 200 El Morro tenants.

Primary among the issues still to play out in court, he said, is whether the state has followed the law that specifically applies to mobile home park evictions. They are more complicated than other evictions, he said, because it's not just the residents who must move, but also their mobile homes. "Nobody will leave before March," Klein said Friday.

The trial will be the tenants' first time in court to argue the merits of the eviction. They had sought an injunction in state appellate court to halt the process before it began, but the court refused to hear the matter.

The stakes are high for tenants who are fighting eviction. Kramer said that if they lost, they would be liable for thousands of dollars in legal fees and attorney costs, back rent and storage for any personal property, in addition to removal and demolition costs for their mobile homes.

Tenants don't want to move out ahead of an actual court order, Klein said, because of the possibility that state officials could change their minds and they could have stayed. "The state renewed their leases once for 20 years, and again for five years," he said.

A current proposal under consideration by state officials, he said, would allow the tenants to collectively pay $50 million to extend their leases 20 years.

"You're talking about a community that's older, in many ways, than Newport Beach," Klein said. "It takes up just 1% of the land that the state bought for the park, and the people who live there -- many of whom are retired -- can't just find another place in Orange County for a couple hundred thousand dollars."

Among the residents unsure of what to do is Cindy Heal Mejias, a 51-year-old nurse who moved to El Morro Village six years ago and found solace in the canyon's peaceful beauty.

Mejias and her husband are leaning toward joining with tenants fighting eviction, partly because there are few alternatives. Laguna Beach is priced beyond their means, she said, and the other option is to join with her elderly mother in Irvine in buying a home for the three.

If Mejias and her husband fight and lose, they face eviction and legal costs. Either way, she said, "we know it's going to be expensive."


[Clips from original newspaper articles appear here for educational purposes and purposes of comment, rather than commercial purposes. They are reprinted under the fair use doctrine of international copyright law. Copyright Los Angeles Times]



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