Angry La Costans Vow to Sever Ties; Carlsbad Doubts It

Times Staff Writer

A civil war is brewing in Carlsbad, and like the battles of yore between the Union and the Confederacy, it threatens to pit the north against the south.

Down in La Costa, a thicket of upscale homes and condominiums in hilly south Carlsbad that has sprouted around the tony resort that gave the area its name, a feisty band of residents has begun to talk of seceding from the municipality.

Granted, their gripes are far less pressing than the morally vexing dilemmas of slavery and states' rights, but many La Costans are plenty riled up nonetheless.

From problems with getting street signs and proper police protection to concerns that rampant high-density development threatens to dilute their quality of life, these residents contend that Carlsbad's southern half has been dealt a raw deal by civic leaders.

As the rebels see it, the best way for La Costa to ensure a harmonious future is through home rule. They want to break away from the City of Carlsbad and carve a new municipality of their own.

"I think we have a basis for a nice little resort city here," said O.B. Adams, a retired Navy captain who is helping lead the secession battle. "We want personal rule for the people here, not the impersonal bureaucracy to the north that we now have."

Not everyone, however, is pleased with the idea. In particular, Carlsbad city leaders have made it clear that they think the secession proposal is misguided, the sort of fight that will draw blood but fail to produce a true victor.

"I'm fearful that we'd be going backward," said Councilwoman Ann Kulchin, the lone representative from La Costa. "Carlsbad is a self-service city. If La Costa were to secede, it would suddenly have to start contracting with the sheriff and other county agencies. This is not the time to say, 'Hey, let's start all over.' "

Councilman Mark Pettine agreed, saying that complaints about insufficient municipal services and getting a political cold shoulder from city leaders are essentially problems from the past. The present City Council, he said, has worked hard to rectify such grievances.

"I think many of the complaints they voice are legitimate," Pettine said. "But over the last year to year and a half, we've seen a council that has paid far more attention to La Costa issues than past councils have."

Other city leaders question whether the fervor for secession is widespread or merely the fixation of a few dozen politically motivated residents.

"Quite frankly, I think this thing is simply window dressing," Councilman John Mamaux said. "What they're really just trying to do is build a political organization."

Such claims chafe on leaders of La Costa's secessionist movement, who contend that the effort enjoys burgeoning popularity.

As proof, they point to a recent meeting to drum up support for the cityhood effort. Sponsored by the La Costa Town Council, the newly formed group that is spearheading the campaign, the gathering drew more than 200 residents, both young and old.

"Any time you get more than 25 or 30 people together for anything in La Costa, that's a major event of earth-shattering circumstances," said Dennis Price, a secession leader. "I think it sent a message to City Hall. The years of discontent, of houses being piled into the area, of fees being collected with nothing to show for it except ceaseless traffic--all that has finally boiled to the surface."

Moreover, leaders of the secession drive say members of their group have conducted a telephone poll of La Costa's 22,000 residents that indicates a solid majority favors the movement.

Of the 246 registered voters polled, 67.1% said they would support secession, and 8.1% said they would support it if cityhood proves to be financially feasible. Of the remainder, 14.6% said they would not support a secession drive and 10.2% had no opinion.

Though supporters acknowledge that the road to cityhood will be long and rugged, they insist that the effort will be well worth it.

"I'm convinced it's going to happen," said Jim Popovich, a retired recreation administrator from Pasadena and chairman of the La Costa Town Council. "It's going to be a long, hard fight, but it will happen. I think the people are so discouraged and disillusioned with what has happened to us that they'll be eager to form their own community."

Situated in the southeastern corner of Carlsbad, La Costa has for years maintained an identity independent of its mother city. The area first began to grow in the mid-1960s, with the completion of the prestigious La Costa Resort Hotel and Spa, an impressive 1,000-acre complex that features two dozen tennis courts, a 36-hole golf course and a 500-room hotel.

In the decades since, a sea of homes has spread outward from the spa, ranging from stucco condominiums to single-story tract houses to Tudor mansions nestled behind wrought-iron gates. The area was annexed by Carlsbad in 1972, helping to fuel the development boom.

Though La Costa has a reputation as a posh hamlet accessible only to the rich, people like Popovich and Adams maintain that that's an inaccurate portrait of the community.

The median price of homes compares well to other areas along the San Diego County coastline, ranging between $180,000 and $200,000. According to Popovich, most residents "are just common, working-class folks. Hell, we can't afford to belong to the country club. It's way out of our class."

Sitting five miles south of the existing subdivisions and businesses of downtown Carlsbad, the area remains a virtual island of development to this day, physically separated from the rest of the city. And many La Costa residents like it that way.

"I lived in my house for three years before I ever went to downtown Carlsbad for something," said Popovich, a La Costa resident for six years. "For three years, I never knew where downtown Carlsbad was.

"People in La Costa are oriented more toward the south, toward Encinitas and San Diego. We have no connection with downtown Carlsbad."

But as Carlsbad politicians began approving one housing project after another for La Costa, the area's residents realized they were very much connected to the community to the north.

Suddenly, acres of red-tiled rooftops began appearing. With the building boom, residents began to notice increasing problems with traffic, a shortage of parks, the lack of a library and other public facility shortfalls.

In late 1985, Adams and other homeowners gathered to form a political action committee of sorts, designed to lobby city officials on issues concerning La Costa.

Along with other residents, they managed to persuade the council to lower densities on several housing projects. Heeding the sudden outcry, the council pushed forward with construction of Stagecoach Park, a $4-million, 28-acre area that includes a recreation center that is due to open in La Costa this spring.

Such steps, however, have left leaders of the secession unimpressed.

"That Stagecoach Park was built on the backs of all these people who put up with traffic and development for the past few years down here," said Price, an advertising salesman. "The council didn't give it to us. We paid our share down here."

Many residents still have a long list of complaints, beginning with traffic along La Costa Avenue--the area's only major east-west link with Interstate 5--and the headache of having four different school districts serve the area.

Despite a council-backed growth-management plan approved by voters in November, many homeowners also remain concerned about the potential for unchecked high-density growth in the La Costa area.

Plans for south Carlsbad, which has about 8,500 housing units, call for an additional 21,500 units over the coming decades. (In the northern half of Carlsbad, there are about 12,400 existing dwelling units, with an additional 12,000 planned.)

The growth issues have received most of the attention, but the dispute that finally sparked the secession move was a squabble over truck traffic on Rancho Santa Fe Road.

Residents along the road, among them Popovich, have long complained about the noise and danger created as garbage trucks and other large vehicles rumble up the thoroughfare. When the City Council in January refused to bow to homeowners' pleas to ban trucks from the road, the secession movement was formally organized.

The first step for the group has been to attempt to raise the $10,000 needed to finance a feasibility study to determine whether La Costa has the fiscal wherewithal to operate as a city. About $1,500 has been raised so far, and the organizers plan several dances and auctions to come up with the rest.

In addition, they must collect the signatures of more than 2,500 registered voters in La Costa to qualify the secession proposal for the ballot.

Next, the group would have to get approval for the secession from the Local Agency Formation Commission, which handles such jurisdictional matters. The matter would then go before the Carlsbad City Council, which must give its OK before the issue can go on the ballot.

Finally, it would go before voters in the area scheduled to be split off from the city. If all went without a glitch, it could be on the ballot by 1988 or 1989, secession leaders say.

Getting permission to go forward from the City Council could prove a formidable task. Aside from the fact that the council thinks the secession is essentially a bad idea, several members disapprove of the boundaries being proposed for a new city of La Costa.

As leaders of the secession movement see it, a new city would be carved out of Carlsbad with Palomar Airport Road acting as a northern boundary line. Everything north of the road, an east-west highway that cuts like a sword through Carlsbad's midsection, would remain in the present city. The 22-square-mile region south of the road would be designated the new city of La Costa.

Critics say that division is unfair, largely because La Costa would reap the financial benefits of the dozens of industries in Palomar Airport Business Park, a project pulled together by Carlsbad officials over several painstaking years.

Carlsbad leaders like Mayor Claude (Buddy) Lewis say they simply would not agree to give up the industrial park to a new city. And without the park, Lewis said, La Costa would probably prove to be fiscally unfeasible.

"I could not support them if they took the industrial belt," Lewis said. "And I can't see how they'd survive economically without it."

Councilman Mamaux also stressed that residents of several outlying neighborhoods eyed by the secessionists do not particularly fancy being included in a new city. In particular, residents of the region along Interstate 5 in southern Carlsbad have never associated themselves with La Costa, he said.

Bill Whitworth, homeowners association president at Lakeshore Gardens mobile home park, said most residents of the 382-space community along Interstate 5 would prefer to stay a part of Carlsbad.

"I don't see where it would benefit us at all," Whitworth said. "I think the City of Carlsbad is the best city in the world. If they split it, this southern area is going to suffer. It's an unnecessary move."

Many residents in La Costa itself feel the cityhood effort is premature.

"I'm really not in favor of it and don't know many people who are," said Anne Blodgett, a La Costa resident for 13 years. "I just don't feel the time is right. We need to get more sources of revenue established to finance a city before we start talking about this."

Another resident, Jeannie Mash, agreed. "I'm still asking where's the tax base?" she said. "La Costa Country Club is not going to give us the tax base for police and a fire department and city managers and secretaries. We're not ready for this."

Leaders of the cityhood movement acknowledge they face such opposition but maintain the vast majority of La Costa residents feel differently.

As Adams and Popovich picture it, once thousands of residents have signed a petition calling for secession, the Carlsbad City Council will be forced to acquiesce to demands for a separate city.

"If this council is too narrow minded to approve it," Adams warned, "we'll find some people who are more enlightened."

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