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Help for Victims of Landslide May Further Delay Park Plan

Published: June 20, 2005

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif., June 19 - A proposal by the mayor of Laguna Beach to move people left homeless by a recent landslide into a 300-unit seaside trailer park has further complicated a plan by the state to convert the property into a public campground.

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Jamie Rector for The New York Times

Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider, mayor of Laguna Beach, Calif., near a trailer park where she wants to let some victims of a mudslide live.

The mayor, Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider, said up to 20 families could be temporarily housed at the trailer park, El Morro Village, which is part of Crystal Cove State Park.

The trailer park has been an issue since 1979, when a state agency, California State Parks, spent $32 million for 3,000 acres of beaches, bluffs and hillsides to create Crystal Cove. The purchase included El Morro Village, and, as part of the deal, the state allowed residents to continue living there for 20 years.

In 1999, the state extended residents' leases for five years, and in January, with $10 million in place to finance the removal of the trailers and the creation of a 60-unit campground and parking area, the state began eviction proceedings. A lawsuit contesting the evictions is expected to be decided in August.

Mayor Pearson-Schneider said she wanted to place 15 to 20 families in vacant trailers on the inland side of El Morro Village.

"Some people seem to think that this might have an impact on the legal battle to get the permanent residents out," she said, "but these would be the trailers of people who have already thrown in the towel and said, 'We're out for good.' "

Since the landslide on June 1, town officials have scrambled to house families whose homes were damaged or destroyed. Many families who are paying large mortgages on uninhabitable plots have found shelter with friends, family or other local homeowners.

But Ms. Pearson-Schneider said this was not the two- to three-year solution the landslide victims needed to get back on their feet and rebuild once their properties were deemed geologically sound.

After August, she said, it is likely that evictions on the permanent residents will proceed and that one row of trailers in the back of the park can be set aside for landslide victims, many of them elderly or working families with children.

Pending approval of a federal disaster declaration for the affected property, the mayor said she would ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue an emergency declaration allowing the victims to live at the park and to override an order by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board that El Morro's antiquated septic system be shut by Sept. 30.

The governor's office referred questions on the matter to a state parks spokesman, Roy Stearns, who said he was sympathetic to the families' plight but was opposed to the mayor's proposal.

"It seems to me that these people need a stable, long-term solution," Mr. Stearns said, "not just a false hope that they could move to El Morro and everything would be O.K."

With permits and financing in place to construct the campground and remove the trailers, adding new residents as current ones are being evicted would impede the project, Mr. Stearns said.

He added that landslide victims would be living in a construction zone, and that the state parks agency did not yet hold title to the trailers.

Some residents of El Morro Village and landslide victims said they welcomed the idea.

John Stevens, 53; his wife, Diane, 49; and his children Haley, 14, and Luke, 10, were left homeless when the landslide destroyed their home on Flamingo Drive.

Mr. Stevens, a general contractor, said a lack of insurance, a sizable mortgage and the need to feed and house his family had made the last two weeks difficult.

The family has been house-sitting at one home and will probably move to another for two weeks. "After that," Mr. Stevens said, "I don't know."

Moving to El Morro "would be good for the kids," he said, because it would add some stability.

"I don't know a lot about the politics of the situation," he said. "I've been busy trying to retrieve what little I can, and continue to take my kids to school and to work. I'm just in a bad spot."

In El Morro Village, Dr. Silvana Balsimelli, 40, a chiropractor who calls the trailer park "the best place I've ever lived my whole life," said landslide victims would be welcome.

"This is a really great place for healing," Dr. Balsimelli said

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Photo: Central Park sprinkler, 1928, is turned on for the first time.
Photo: Central Park sprinkler, 1928, is turned on for the first time.