EL MORRO VILLAGE -- The second of four generations to have lived in this unusual, seaside mobile home park, Shari Ravenscroft seemed serene rather than sad as she picked her way through a house and porch full of boxes Wednesday. "We've raised six kids here," she said. "The oldest and the youngest began their lives here."
Now they've largely packed up and gone elsewhere, as have most of the people living at El Morro. They're leaving to comply with a March 1 deadline, one provision of a settlement most residents reached with the state of California, which owns the park property.
But a few dozen people remained this week, savoring their last moments at the park before yielding to the state parks department's plans to make the land a 60-unit campground with parking for about 200 cars.
Living on borrowed time
The mobile home community has existed for 75 years, but it's been on borrowed time since the state bought the land in 1979, intending to create a public park. After their leases expired at the end of 2004, many of El Morro's 300 or so residents fought their eviction in court but finally agreed to a settle ment in November 2005.
Ravenscroft's parents, who moved last week from El Morro to Vancouver, Wash., discovered the park while driving by more than three decades ago, Ravenscroft said. Now 52, she said she first came to El Morro when she was 16.
Her home is on the inland side of the park, which she considers "a little hidden treasure, a place to raise your kids in peace and safety."
"We just really feel that we've been given a gift for these years and we're extremely grateful," Ravenscroft said.
It was hard to tell last week exactly how many homes were empty, but the actual houses have been removed from a number of lots on the inland side, leaving bare dirt plots.
Some homes were obviously vacant, with the words "no trespassing" prominently displayed on signs and also stenciled on some of the homes' windows. Others were piled with boxes or still had porch furniture and plants arrayed outside.
In other places, residents have left evidence of their feelings -- one building bore the spray-painted message, "We love you El Morro."
Sticking it out
For author Jean Ardell, 62, the park has been a gathering place for family and friends since she moved there in 1979. When she first came to El Morro, Ardell said, she was heartbroken because her first marriage was ending, and she had two young children.
"This beach has a way of putting things into perspective. No matter how bad a day I had I'd walk this beach, and it calms you down," she said. "It makes you realize your problems aren't of worldwide importance."
She and her husband, Dan, have a place on the ocean side of the park, where they plan to stay until the very end. Then they'll go back to their Corona del Mar home.
Many people said one of El Morro's distinctive qualities was the mixture of people it brought together as one community -- wealthy people who lived there in the summer or on weekends, and others whose home at the park was all they had.
And it was an unpretentious place, Ardell said.
"Don't kid yourself, there are people down here with a lot of money, but you never knew it," she said. "They weren't that kind of money."
Beyond the sense of community, El Morro dwellers could revel in a breathtaking ocean view and wild surroundings -- dolphins, whales and pelicans on the ocean side, and bobcats and other animals in the canyon.
The remaining residents -- Ravenscroft thought fewer than 20 of the inland homes were still occupied -- lament that the state is destroying what they consider one of the few historic and quintessentially Californian communities.
They know the fight is over and they're resigned to moving out, but they believe an opportunity for compromise was missed.
"My personal opinion -- I know this is shared by probably many of the people here -- is the state's plan for this property is an ill-conceived notion," said Dr. George Brennan, a cosmetic surgeon who has lived at El Morro for 10 years. "Probably the best example of that is Crystal Cove."
El Morro is part of Crystal Cove State Park, where a project to restore a group of historic beach cottages is under way but is behind schedule and over budget. State parks officials in August 2005 announced they would scale back plans for facilities at El Morro because bids came in as much as $5 million higher than expected.
Residents said the state could have helped itself during the current budget crisis by letting them stay and continuing to pay rent, or by raising rents to market rates.
They would have been willing to work with state officials, Dan Ardell said, but now that chance is gone.
"Everybody knows it's a public beach, but it could have been advertised more, there could have been a lot of things," he said. "But all they needed was to come to us and say, 'Do it.'"
Planning to move ahead
As residents are preparing to move on, so are state officials. As soon as the last tenant leaves, the state parks department will find a contractor to remove any remaining mobile homes. Once the site is bare, bids will be requested for the first phase of the work, said Richard Rozzelle, superintendent of the state parks' Orange Coast district.
"We're going to phase the project and the first phase, we think, will keep us under our budget," Rozzelle said Friday. The first part of the work will cost about $10.8 million and will create 60 camp sites, half equipped for recreational vehicles and half for tents only.
About 90 to 100 parking spaces will be created; restrooms will be built; and sewage, water and electric infrastructure will be installed. The traffic light that's now in front of El Morro Elementary School will be moved about 75 yards north on East Coast Highway to serve the park's entrance road.
Rozzelle expected construction to begin this year in late summer or early fall, and it should take 18 months, but weather could intervene.
In the state's defense, weather was part of the problem with Crystal Cove, he said.
"Yes, it is behind schedule, but we had 30-plus inches of rain last year, and you can't construct buildings and do roadwork in those conditions," Rozzelle said.
"Our hope with this project is we've clearly defined what the scope is and there won't be any cost overruns."
Even without overruns, though, there's no money for El Morro's second phase. Those plans include picnic facilities, an outdoor interpretive center, a lifeguard headquarters, additional restrooms and restoration of a creek. It's not clear how much all that will cost.
But plans for the camp sites will move ahead, probably within 30 to 45 days of when the park empties out, Rozzelle said.
A sense of grief
Some residents will undoubtedly hang on to relics of El Morro. A home on the ocean side last week bore a sign that declared it "Cobb & Susan's sea solace," and one car parked nearby had "L MORO" on its license plate.
Jean Ardell said she's still working out her feelings about the place. She's not taking much from the house there, just a few knickknacks to help her grandsons to remember it.
"How do you grieve the loss of a place? A place like this is so unique it can't be replaced."
The Ravenscrofts planned to move to the east coast, but at least one of them expects to venture back. After growing up at El Morro, 13-year-old Christian Ravenscroft -- Shari's youngest -- plans to return someday to see what becomes of the place.
He's not sure if his parents will visit, he said, but "I definitely will."
[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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