Lafco to Reconsider Niguel Coast Action

Times Staff Writer

The county's Local Agency Formation Commission will reconsider its decision to give a disputed coastal strip of Laguna Niguel to the proposed city of Dana Point.

But commissioners Thursday said they probably will stick by their original action unless Laguna Niguel leaders can bring new information to show why the coast should remain within Laguna Niguel's proposed city boundaries.

Lafco--the agency that recommends incorporation proposals to the Board of Supervisors--voted 3 to 0 Wednesday to reconsider its coastal decision, which was based on a Nov. 3 advisory election by coastal residents that showed they wanted to become a part of Dana Point rather than Laguna Niguel.

Wednesday's decision came after commissioners met in closed session with legal counsel regarding allegations made by Laguna Niguel leaders that the commission had violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires governmental agencies to provide public notice of meetings.

Members of Laguna Niguel Citizens Task Force for Incorporation had said they were not notified that Lafco would be discussing the Laguna Niguel coastal strip as part of the Dana Point incorporation proposal during the Dec. 2 meeting.

No 'Due Process'

"We were kind of put on notice that we did not have due process," Commissioner Evelyn R. Hart said Thursday. "But right, wrong, or indifferent, we thought it better to reschedule the hearing."

Lafco will reconduct the public hearings on the Dana Point and Laguna Niguel cityhood proposals during its meeting Jan. 27.

"Essentially, we're back at ground zero, as if no decision has even been made," Lafco Chairman Donald A. Holt said Thursday.

But Holt and Commissioners Hart and Phillip Schwartze also said Thursday that they probably will stick to their original votes to give the coast to Dana Point. The commissioners said they were committed to implementing the results of the advisory election, when 61% of the residents in the coastal area voted to incorporate with Dana Point rather than remain in Laguna Niguel's proposed boundaries.

Lafco could do one of three things Jan. 27: reconfirm the previous decision, change the decision or continue the matter.

"Unless I hear some new and unusual information, I suspect my decision from the last time would hold," Schwartze said.

Holt said: "Right now, I'm inclined to support the intent of the people. It would be a smack in the face of democracy if we ignore the advisory vote we called for."

Hart also said that she would listen to new information but considered the Jan. 27 meeting a chance to reconfirm the commission's previous vote.

"I don't know what type of new information would come in to make the commission change its vote," Hart said.

Lawsuit Filed

This week's reconsideration step comes in the wake of a lawsuit the task force filed against Lafco on Monday, charging the commission with violating the California Government Code, which requires the commission to consider how an incorporation will affect the areas adjacent to the proposed city.

Bruce Rasner, co-chairman of the task force, said the inland Laguna Niguel residents already had raised $10,000 for a legal battle and would not stop pursuing legal avenues unless the commissioners change their minds about the coastal strip.

The commission voted Nov. 18 to postpone a decision on Laguna Niguel's incorporation until May so financial studies could be completed to determine if it was a viable city without the coast. Rasner said his group has not begun any feasibility studies and that it would be impossible to complete any by Jan. 27.

"At this point, we're not counting on anything," Rasner said. "We will continue to raise money for a lawsuit because it is filed in court. It is fruitless to begin a (financial) study that won't be ready by Jan. 27."

The coveted coastal strip consists of 13 subdivisions stretching from the southern boundary of Laguna Beach to Dana Point and includes the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, representing some $2.5 million in tax revenues.

According to previous financial studies filed with Lafco, Laguna Niguel would have a $3-million revenue surplus without the coastal strip.

Lafco Executive Officer Richard Turner said Thursday he will again prepare reports on the incorporations, but that he is not certain what the staff's recommendation will be to the commission.

Turner said the rescheduled hearing simply was the commission's reaction to the allegations of violating the Brown Act.

"This time they (commissioners) decided to give the proper notice," Turner said. "Now, whether they're going to stick by their original decision, I don't know."

Commissioner Schwartze said the crux of the Jan. 27 meeting will be "to make sure all the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted."

"Everybody involved from Capistrano Beach, Dana Point, the advisory vote area and Laguna Niguel will be aware that Lafco will be making a decision."

Incorporation Vote

Residents of Dana Point, Capistrano Beach and the Laguna Niguel coastal strip were scheduled to vote on incorporating as one city in the June primary.

Dana Point incorporation leader Mike Eggers said he believes that election date will hold and that he is confident Lafco will stand by its original decision to give the coast to Dana Point.

"What I see is on Jan. 27, Lafco will follow a set of legal guidelines to reaffirm what they already voted on twice. . . . This should be the final hearing before Lafco, and there should be no question in anybody's mind on what has occurred," he said.

Lafco officials said Laguna Niguel leaders would be better off pursuing incorporation without the coast instead of dragging the matter into court.

"I'm hoping the leadership of Laguna Niguel can move forward on something progressive rather than taking potshots at Dana Point," Schwartze said.

Leaders in both incorporations have been coming before Lafco for more than a year, attempting to iron out boundaries.

'Bad Feelings'

"The longer it gets postponed, the more it tends to create neighbor-against-neighbor bad feelings," Hart said. "The sooner this is put to bed . . . the better it will be for everyone in Laguna Niguel and Dana Point."

Rasner said that Lafco's decision to reconsider "can't hurt" but that he and his colleagues would only be happy if all or part of the coast remains in Laguna Niguel.

"There is only one solution--that we retain some kind of coastal identity. That may be in different forms," Rasner said.

Developers have long promoted Laguna Niguel as "Sea Country," referring to the community stretching from the San Diego Freeway to the coast, between Laguna Beach and Dana Point.

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