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In San Clemente, they're saying heck no, we won't grow

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When Richard Nixon made San Clemente his western White House, the late satirist Art Hoppe described the population as "15,000 conservative Republicans, 2,000 surfers, five poor people [and] roughly the same number of liberal Democrats."

That was in 1972; today the population is 65,000 or so and it's possible they've chased off the last of the poor people and the liberals.

As a matter of politics and philosophy, San Clemente has long been friendly to business, to growth, to builders. Property rights are cherished, and some prominent preservationists have a habit of pointing out -- when they have not been asked -- that they do not consider themselves environmentalists.

So, few in town gave it much thought when a group of activists last year vowed to overturn a City Council vote allowing a golf course to turn a third of its holes into a subdivision of more than 200 homes. To the outside world, it seemed like a parochial dispute. A sizable portion of the 8,423 signatures that were collected to force the issue onto last February's ballot were delivered to City Hall in a plastic laundry basket.

Then, to the surprise of even its most ardent supporters, the effort to block the development succeeded -- overwhelmingly. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters sent an unmistakable message that open space is not for sale to the highest bidder, that San Clemente -- nearing build out 80 years after its founding -- was about to become choosy about its future.

San Clemente's rabble-rousers are not exactly peasants with pitchforks. They're retirees, golfers with notable handicaps, investment advisors -- more like patricians with pitching wedges. But they are piecing together a citizen revolt of their own, in a place that has not been accustomed to that kind of thing in recent years.

The victory at the golf course seemed to open the floodgates, and today, affable little San Clemente is in the grips of a surge in community activism. Citizen groups seem to be forming at every turn -- to oppose big signs that would be strung alongside a proposed outlet mall, to monitor the proposed development of more than 300 seaside homes, to fight plans for fancy retail development atop one of the town's primary beach accesses.

"It was a historic change," said Al Cullen, 72, a retired commercial banker who has owned a home in San Clemente since 1988, and whose wife, Yvonne, began surfing the city's famed T Street break long before that. "No one had ever tried to beat a developer here -- and won."

San Clemente has always been built in fits and starts. Its developer -- a visionary from Wisconsin named Ole Hanson -- was rumored to have gone mad trying to build it, according to "The Heritage of San Clemente," a local history book.

Hanson was correct that people would be drawn to the breathtaking beaches and bluffs; in 1925, 1,000 people stopped by to look into buying lots the first day he pitched his sales tents. The cynics were correct, too, that San Clemente was halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, and not really connected to either one.

As a result, perhaps, Hanson's attempt to build nirvana -- "a place," he once wrote, "where a man can breathe!" -- was never quite finished. The quirky, sleepy town became quite protective of itself. Its historical society was formed after a Hanson-era mansion was torn down in the dead of night to make room for condos, its antiques still inside. Later, the city restricted builders to 500 new homes a year.

San Clemente staved off the explosive growth that was spreading rapidly across the region. Preservationists fended off a number of ill-conceived development proposals -- to turn Ole Hanson's gorgeous seaside estate into a Mexican restaurant, for instance. But, particularly after toll roads began to spider web through south Orange County a decade ago, making the beach town more accessible to the rest of Southern California, San Clemente couldn't hold off change forever.

In recent years, the activists argue, builders have proposed -- and City Hall has often welcomed with an uncritical eye -- projects that they felt were out of character with the the town.

They include a $200-million-plus, 653,000-square-foot outlet mall-hotel-theater-restaurant complex, slated to open on a majestic bluff called Marblehead; a pocket of triple-lot seaside mansions; and a series of proposals that would pack the area known as North Beach, a popular beach access, with new commercial development.

"Some people say, well, you just want to live in Mayberry. You know what? Mayberry has some wonderful ideals, where you walk down the street and you know the name of the people you see -- and the name of their dog," said City Councilman Wayne Eggleston, a leader of the effort to tighten control on development.

"Yes, we're going to grow. It's how we grow," he said. "What is our vision for the future? Do we want to look Huntington Beach? Or Carmel?"

There is no reason to think that the activists, however emboldened they may be, are going to win at every turn. They still lack a majority of votes on the council, and there are plenty in town who believe they are nothing but obstructionists. Developer Steve Craig, whose Craig Realty Group is behind the proposed Marblehead complex, questioned how representative they are of San Clemente.

"I would say it's a small, vocal group as opposed to a groundswell," Craig said. "If you're going in there and trying to just throw up a building, I think that wouldn't work. . . . But I think they are looking for quality development."

Mayor Joe Anderson said the debate is little more than a healthy reflection of the fact that locals care. High standards, he said, "can breed contention."

"But we get along," he said. "I would not call it adversarial."

Charles Mann would disagree. The 60-year-old Mann moved to San Clemente 26 years ago, drawn by the surfing and the lifestyle -- and the golf, which, between the rolling hills and the sea breeze, reminded him of the storied golf courses in his native Scotland. He became a member at Pacific Golf and Country Club -- and then the leader of the effort to fight Pacific's plans to build houses on nine of its 27 holes.

It was an awkward combination. Executives pushing the development -- who did not return phone calls seeking comment -- spent more than $250,000 on a campaign to quell the uprising. They hired professional "blockers," Mann said, to intimidate his ragtag army of signature gatherers. And in the weeks before the vote, they distributed nasty fliers featuring shadowy photographs of him, accusing him of being more "concerned about his golf game" than preserving undeveloped land.

There were days, Mann said, when he wanted to quit.

"I'm not against development," he said. "I'm against ruining open space and quality of life. There's a big difference. But this city has always been run by developers. 'You can't fight City Hall' seemed to be invented here."

In the days that followed the February vote, the country club expelled at least 10 members who had sided against the proposed housing development. They included Mann and 82-year-old Jack Thomson, a retired sales manager who flew bombing missions during World War II.

Thomson said friends had warned him that he might be thrown out.

"I said: 'Oh, they're not going to do that. That's loony tunes,' " he said. "Two weeks later, they did it. I'm not bellyaching. But I was surprised."

Episodes like that, Mann said, made it clear that the activists must persevere.

They recently helped push through an ordinance requiring the public's approval before the city can approve any development on land designated as open space. That's not enough, Mann said; the group has pushed for a November ballot measure that would essentially ratify that vote, making it difficult for a future City Council to reverse the decision and placing more power in the hands of the public.

"And these guys will be after us the whole time," Mann said with a chuckle. "A dragon-slayer's day is never finished."

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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