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Dan Walters: Crystal Cove's long-running soap opera finally nears an end

[Article from the Sacramento Bee 8-29-2005]

By Dan Walters
Sacramento Bee

Chuck DeVore was a teenager in 1979 when Orange County's Irvine ranching family sold Crystal Cove, one of the most scenic beaches in Southern California, and 3.5 miles of coastal land to the state for a park.

More than a quarter-century after the sale, DeVore is the state assemblyman representing that coastal strip and thus finds himself involved in one of the Capitol's longest-running conflicts: whether those who have enjoyed low-or no-rent living in trailers and shacks in and around Crystal Cove should be evicted for the park.

The conflict has its antecedents in the early decades of the 20th century when the land was an Irvine cattle ranch and the family gave its friends informal permission to set up tents and erect beach shacks, which were then passed on to others over the ensuing decades. Later, the El Morro trailer park was placed on the southern edge of the coastal stretch.

It's doubtful whether even one legislative session has passed without some new skirmish in the battle over Crystal Cove surfacing. For many years after the land donation, lawmakers sympathetic to the beach-dwellers would insert, or at least attempt to insert, language in the budget bill to thwart a state takeover.

The 46 beach shacks were taken over by the state four years ago, and the Department of Parks and Recreation is undertaking a multimillion-dollar project to restore and/or replace 22 of them for rental to the public - aiming to preserve, in effect, a bit of early 20th century beach life amidst the intense urban development of the Orange County coast.

The several hundred occupants of the El Morro trailer park, however, have resisted state efforts to move them out and open the land to public use. After acquiring the property in 1979, the state gave the trailer dwellers 20-year leases and later extended them by five years, but the extension expired at end of 2004 (a few were extended further to March). Thirty of the trailers have been vacated, but those who occupy the other 265 have so far refused to go - even though the leases they signed said they would leave after expiration.

Republican DeVore took up their cause after his election in 2004. Two of the first bills he submitted this year would, if enacted, have extended the leases further, by as much as 30 more years. He said the Parks and Recreation Department could not afford to do the work necessary to convert the property to public use, but critics pointed to campaign funds DeVore had received from trailer park residents and others opposed to the eviction, and the bills went nowhere.

DeVore's next maneuver was a bill that would have sharply raised rents on park rangers who live in the refurbished cottages at Crystal Cove, but it, too, was scuttled. Last week, DeVore made one more attempt to thwart the state's plans for Crystal Cove.

He asked the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to authorize an audit of the state's spending on the park, citing cost overruns on the beach shack conversion project. But the committee refused to approve the audit.

So what's next in this long-running saga, one worthy of an episode of "The O.C.," the Fox TV network's sun-and-sex soaper?

Parks and Recreation has obtained a court order to evict the trailer park's management company, Morro Village Inc., and it will soon leave. The department is pressing another eviction suit against the residents and is virtually certain to win. Would the trailer dwellers then vacate? No one knows whether there will be a peaceful resolution or at some point sheriff's deputies will be called in for a forcible eviction.

"We're trying to bend over backwards to avoid the ugliness," says departmental spokesman Roy Stearns. "We've tried to make it as easy as possible."

When the trailers are gone, the state plans to replace them with a visitor parking lot and 60 campsites, clean up Moro Creek and remove a substandard septic tank system.

It wouldn't be difficult to generate sympathy for those who live in the trailers, some of them for many years. They're trying to preserve their unique lifestyles. But the land was acquired by the state fairly for a park, residents were given decades to make other plans and their leases have now expired. They are now squatters, not victims.


[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 Sacramento Bee]



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