Residents of a beachfront mobile home park north of Laguna Beach have ended their 25-year dispute with the state and agreed to leave by March 1, according to a settlement announced Friday.
This ends one of Southern California's longest battles over public beaches. It pitted the state, which has long planned to turn the public land into a campground and RV park, against residents of El Morro Village, a quaint enclave in Crystal Cove State Park.
The residents also have agreed to pay the state $650,000 in legal fees and rent.
Tenants rented their sites on a month-to-month basis from the Irvine Co. until the state bought the land for $32.5 million in 1979 and turned it into a park. The state offered residents 20-year leases that were extended for five years in 1999.
Residents of the nearly 300 mobile homes, which sit on both sides of Coast Highway, were supposed to move by Jan. 1, 2005, and take their homes with them. After residents protested, about 10% of them signed an agreement with the state to stay until last April 1 in exchange for paying $3,000 to cover the costs of removing their homes. The others stayed and fought their eviction in court before losing.
"We're delighted to finally have a resolution to this and start giving a lot of people what they want ‹ a new campground in this part of California," said Roy Stearns, spokesman for California State Parks. He said there are few undeveloped places left along the coast for building campgrounds.
The outcome disappointed mobile home park residents.
"I'm still kind of in shock over the whole thing," said Gabriel Heflin, 27, whose family has lived at El Morro for generations. "I know it's state property, but I've been here since I was a little kidŠ. So you feel like your home's being taking away from you. It's a pretty brutal feeling."
Residents have tried their utmost to hang onto their homes.
They waged ad campaigns and sued the state in 2002, challenging a state environmental review. They floated proposals to add 50 affordable housing units in exchange for being allowed to stay.
In February, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) introduced two bills to extend tenant leases for 30 years in exchange for paying the state $50 million and agreeing to rent increases at market rates.
But DeVore was criticized for accepting $66,000 in campaign donations and loans from mobile home park residents, and a businessman who held the trailer park lease. He withdrew the bills in April after it became clear they didn't have enough votes to guarantee passage.
California State Parks plans to demolish the mobile home park and convert the site into a day-use and overnight campground.
The state budget includes $10.4 million for the project, but Stearns said it probably will cost more and include a small amphitheater, public restrooms, picnic areas and restoration of El Moro Creek.
The park includes 46 cottages built in the 1920s at Crystal Cove, which are being renovated for overnight stays.
El Morro residents lamented the community being broken apart. They would hold chili cook-offs in the summer and more than 300 residents would attend potluck dinners. One longtime resident, Raymond Acosta, would offer neighbors and teenagers jobs in his construction business.
"You have people here who are wealthy, people on Social Security, and everyone comes together, and you never know the difference between one or the other," said Helfin. "It's a real shame to think that it's not going to be here."
[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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