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Jamie Rector for The New York Times
In Laguna Beach, Calif., residents of the El Morro Village trailer park, above, pay rents of $470 to $1,100, although many say they would be willing to pay more to retain their way of life.

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Two beachgoers use a drainage pipe to get to the surf.

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Trailer-Park Dwellers Fight Eviction From Paradise


Published: May 2, 2005

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif., April 29 - In one of the few rustic corners remaining in coastal Orange County, a tiny trailer park has become the focal point of a battle between residents and the park's landlord - the California State Parks system.

With the state ready to proceed on a stalled plan to construct a campground and day-use facilities at the 27-acre site, which officials say will grant greater public access, parks officials have started eviction proceedings against the residents of the trailer park, El Morro Village.

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But with a slice of paradise on the line, most residents have chosen to fight.

"They're pulling this old bandwagon that's long dead and not true," said Tim Williams, 36, who has lived at El Morro for nearly four years with his wife, Dalila, and their son, Sebastian, 5. "Saying people are denied access - that's a lie."

Mr. Williams said the only time access was controlled was during high season at the beachfront, when crowds get large. "But at any time, anyone can walk down and enjoy that beach," he said.

To many, though - including the Sierra Club and the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation - the residents of this 80-year-old, 295-unit trailer park, part of Crystal Cove State Park, have been given a fair deal for years, and have little left to complain about.

In 1979, El Morro residents were granted a 20-year lease when the state bought the trailer park as part of a nearly 3,000-acre, $32 million deal with the Irvine Company, a real estate investment company in Orange County and the park's previous landlord. Today, the park's 3.2-mile stretch of ocean bluffs and broad foothills separate the private sands of Irvine Cove in Laguna Beach - a neighborhood where the billionaire Warren E. Buffett owns a home - from the graded hillsides and million-dollar tract houses of Newport Coast to the north.

A general plan adopted in 1982 called for the removal of the beachfront, canyon-side and bluff-top trailers; the restoration of habitat; and the creation of a 60-site campground and a 200-space parking lot. In 1999, as the El Morro lease was set to expire, California State Parks granted residents a five-year extension until Dec. 31, 2004.

Roy Stearns, a deputy director of California State Parks, said residents had been paying below-market rent and had known all along that their time would be up.

"You think about that little piece of paradise," Mr. Stearns said, "and you might not want to leave, either. But I want to be clear: this is a public park."

He added that while El Morro residents pay in total about $1.2 million a year to the state in rent, projections for revenue to be gained from the thousands of likely campground and day users nearly match that.

Many residents concede that they have had a good deal, but they also say they would be glad to pay more than their current monthly rent of $470 to $1,100 to hold on to an affordable seaside way of life.

"We've been through lease extensions and all kinds of pressure," said James Woolcott, 39, who rented a bluff-top trailer 10 years ago. "It's a game they're playing with us. But the people that are still there are very hopeful. They're fighters and they're not going to give up."

Gabe Heflin, 27, a general contractor, grew up at El Morro; today, four generations of his family live here. Mr. Heflin lives in a modest two-bedroom trailer with his wife and their three children, ages 1, 4 and 12. He said that diving the reefs, hiking the back-country trails, surfing waves that peel off the rocky headland, and knowing nearly all his neighbors by name was the only life he had ever known.

Mr. Heflin and other residents say that for the last five years, residents have gone out of their way to welcome visitors, even placing a sign alongside the Pacific Coast Highway offering free beach access and parking. Mr. Heflin also said that three separate Crystal Cove parking areas nearby were rarely even halfway filled, and the 50-car visitors lot at El Morro Village was typically empty.

Residents here, Mr. Heflin said, are often portrayed as rich and elitist. Yet Mr. Heflin, his wife and several others said that while there certainly were wealthy trailer dwellers on the ocean side, many of the more rustic, funky trailers on the land side were inhabited by teachers, firefighters, young families and the elderly. One neighbor, Gloria Monroe, who is in her 80's, has nowhere else to go, they said.

"We've been really fortunate to live here," Mr. Heflin's wife, Kelly, said. "I won't say we haven't. But we live paycheck to paycheck."

She added, "What's so bad about there being one affordable place to live in Laguna?"

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, said affordable housing was not the point. "This is also going to be one of those rare places along the coast where there will be affordable camping and beach access," Ms. Goldstein said.

Steve Sacher, 47, a real estate professional and a father of four, said his family had owned a trailer here since 1964. He questioned the wisdom of demolishing El Morro, which he said generated considerable revenue for a state parks system with a maintenance backlog of $900 million.

These concerns were recently addressed in two bills put forth by State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who represents the district that includes the trailer park. The bills would have extended leases for El Morro residents 10 to 30 years, raised rents to market levels, and put the money toward reducing either the state's budge deficit or the state parks' maintenance backlog.

After the bills' introduction, however, Mr. DeVore came under fire when it was revealed that he had taken $66,000 in campaign contributions from park residents and his campaign manager, Roberto Brutocao, whose company, SunCoast Properties, manages El Morro Village.

"I served my constituents," Mr. DeVore said. "These people live here and voted for me. You can attack me on this, but engage me on the merits of the case."

Mr. DeVore said he pulled the bills when it became evident that they would not make it out of committee.

Meanwhile, the Heflins said they could only watch and wait. "I can't worry anymore," Mr. Heflin said. "I've worried myself sick. As it is, every night is just another sunset I'm thankful for."

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.IN THE REGION/Long Island; Waterfront Rentals for Older Adults  (June 27, 2004) 
.National Briefing | West: California: Deal Leaves Scouts To Fight Alone  (January 9, 2004) 
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