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Drives Intensify to Set Up Several New Cities : Mission Viejo, Laguna Niguel Groups Hope to Beat Implementation of Punitive New Law

Times Staff Writer

Within the next few years, Orange County maps may have to be redrawn, as new cities carve themselves out of the suburban sprawl that stretches south to San Clemente.

In almost every county-governed community south of Irvine, residents’ groups are considering drives that could lead to the creation of as many as six cities. Their aim: to control growth, ward off annexations and maintain services.

Exactly where the boundary lines ultimately are drawn will depend on each community’s political will and economic independence, and on the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, which must approve all such plans.

But whether it is one large city or the first of several small ones, county officials agree that Orange County soon will have its first new city since Irvine incorporated 15 years ago.

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Jan. 1 Deadline

In Mission Viejo, an incorporation committee has hired a consultant to determine if a city is economically feasible. If he finds that it is, the group will try to apply by Jan. 1, 1987, to form a city.

In Laguna Niguel, residents upset with the speed of development along Crown Valley Parkway are raising money for an incorporation study. They also hope to apply before the end of the year.

A group representing homeowners’ associations from Laguna Hills, El Toro, Lake Forest and Aegean Hills has just completed a four-year feasibility study that favors the formation of one large city spanning the Saddleback Valley.

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Dana Point Efforts

Farther south, a Dana Point group is raising money for the latest in a long series of incorporation efforts, as is a committee in neighboring Capistrano Beach. These two communities could well wind up as a single city.

Even in Coto de Caza, residents have caught incorporation fever. A group there wants to form a city to slow the building of tract homes in the exclusive, gated community.

“I think it’s natural,” said county Supervisor Bruce Nestande, whose district includes Mission Viejo, El Toro and Lake Forest. “The communities are reaching a point when incorporation can be seriously considered. It could not have occurred a few years ago--there was not the sufficient population or tax base. Whether it is feasible yet politically and economically, I am not certain. We will want to look at the data. . . . But I think we would push for home rule at the lowest level as rapidly as possible.”

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The incorporation boom is not confined to south Orange County, said Fred Christensen, the Oceanside consultant hired to do the Mission Viejo study.

“The natives are anxious all over the state,” said Christensen, whose firm is also working on studies for communities in San Diego, San Bernardino and Madera counties. “With the feds cutting back, counties are having more and more trouble keeping services up. People are beginning to realize that if they can latch on to the revenues being generated locally, especially in fast-growth areas, they can increase the level of services.”

Last year, the Orange County Board of Supervisors decided that unincorporated communities no longer could draw on a $45-million bail-out fund to help pay for local services, such as street sweeping and parks maintenance. Communities that depended on the fund would have to either make do with reduced services from the county or pay assessments to keep them at then-current levels.

Or, they could take over the services themselves, either by forming a community services district--a sort of “junior city” that maintains parks and sweeps streets but leaves land-use decisions in county hands--or by incorporating into a full-blown city.

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Mission Viejo was the first community to act. Last November, residents there voted overwhelmingly to form a community services district, and the district has enjoyed a $1.5-million budget surplus in its first year.

Residents in Laguna Niguel will vote on forming a services district in the November election. Proponents say it will keep in the community about $1 million in property taxes that otherwise will go to the county’s bail-out fund.

Both communities are moving swiftly to apply before Jan. 1 for incorporation. After that date, a new law will make the process considerably more expensive.

Cities to Be Charged

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The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Bradley (R-San Diego), requires cities that apply for incorporation after Jan. 1, 1987, to reimburse the county within five years for services provided during their first year of operation. Under the current law, counties are required to provide services to fledgling cities free.

The change could cost Mission Viejo as much as $5 million, according to local businessman William Craycraft, a leader of the incorporation drive.

In Laguna Niguel, the difference could be about $1 million, said Larry Porter, incorporation committee co-chairman.

But more important than the money, Porter said, is the control that incorporation would give residents over “the whole gamut of life style” in Laguna Niguel: parks and recreation, traffic and police matters, and development.

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Pat Bates, president of the Laguna Niguel Community Council, said it was the council’s frustration over its inability to affect county planning decisions that finally convinced its members to unite behind incorporation.

Within Shouting Distance

“They will say they gave you a park, they gave you a post office, but the fact is that we have to go to Mecca five times to get one-fifth of what we want.”

Having public officials within shouting distance is the biggest single change that residents of a new city notice, incorporation consultant Christensen said. “Your mayor and council are an easy telephone call away,” he said. “But that also means you are on your own. You cannot blame the Board of Supervisors anymore.”

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Incorporation in Laguna Niguel and some of the other fast-growing south county communities, such as El Toro and Laguna Hills, could be a problem for developers, said Tom Davis, a planner and consultant based in San Juan Capistrano.

“Many communities will incorporate and set some tough obstacles to development,” Davis said. “Developers pay a lot of attention to it, but it’s not the end of the world. There’s not much they can do about it.”

San Clemente residents voted this year to limit new home construction, and San Juan Capistrano has had a similar law for years. The Laguna Niguel Community Council had considered as an alternative to incorporation joining in a countywide petition drive to slow growth.

Improved Services

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But incorporation also can be a selling point for home builders, Davis said, if it means the area will have improved public services.

In Capistrano Beach, residents also see incorporation as a way to stop neighboring San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano from eroding its tax base a few acres at a time through annexations. In the most recent dispute, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) allowed a landowner to annex his 12.5 acres straddling the San Juan Capistrano boundary to that city.

San Juan Capistrano stands to gain an estimated $400,000 in sales tax revenues from a shopping center planned for the site. Capistrano Beach residents can only lament the loss of yet another potentially valuable property.

“We are kind of drained right now,” said Terry Lucarelli, a member of a group of residents who fought the annexation and want to form a city. “We will still go ahead and file for the incorporation. But I think there are many of us who hope that we can join up with Dana Point. The feeling is that we would be much stronger.”

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The two beach communities tried to form one city in the late 1960s. They had agreed to name the city Serra, after the Franciscan priest, and had devised a logo that included oranges, rolling hills, the San Juan Capistrano mission and Dana Point Harbor.

May Force Merger

LAFCO, noting that some property owners objected to the plan and questioned its economic feasibility, quashed the idea each time it was offered.

This time may be different. Although Dana Point’s incorporation committee, for now, is pursuing independent incorporation--primarily because that was the first choice of about 200 Dana Point residents surveyed last spring--political realities may force the two communities together. The county does not want the responsibility of local government and is unlikely to approve incorporations that would leave pockets of territory in their hands, said Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, who also serves as chairman of the Local Agency Formation Commission, said.

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“We are not going to set up any barriers to small entities,” Stanton said. “But we want to make sure that each and every city that might ultimately be incorporated has the necessary economic base to survive. . . . We do not want to see any straggling pieces out there, orphaned by a new city . . . that would be a burden on the county and, quite frankly, the cities as well.”

Strength in Numbers

A study by the Saddleback Valley Cityhood Study Council concluded that a city encompassing El Toro, Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, Aegean Hills and Laguna Niguel would be stronger financially than individual cities in those communities.

“The value is that you would have only one administration, which costs a great deal of money,” said Mary Hinkle, president of the council. “The biggest city is the best in this case.”

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But Laguna Niguel community leaders, while not opposed to the idea of a “supercity” spanning the Saddleback Valley, are pursuing incorporation on their own, and a group in Aegean Hills is seeking annexation to the Mission Viejo community services district, a move that could include them in that community’s plans for a city as well.

The loss of Aegean Hills, a “hub area” linking Laguna Hills with El Toro and Lake Forest, Hinkle said, would make forming a valleywide city even more difficult.

The four-year study concluded that the “sense of belonging” in the planned communities of the Saddleback Valley “has ripened into a form of provincialism which may be difficult for the political leadership to set aside.”


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