700 Rally to Save Coastal Strip for Laguna Niguel

Times Staff Writer

More than 700 Laguna Niguel residents rallied Sunday, girding for a battle to preserve their claim to a disputed coastline at a Wednesday hearing over its cityhood proposal.

Organizers of Laguna Niguel Citizens Task Force for Incorporation told supporters--who jammed the bleachers and gymnasium floor at their YMCA--of two alternative plans that would enable their proposed city to keep all, or part of, a string of exclusive gated coastal communities and subdivisions that have historically been considered part of the unincorporated Laguna Niguel area.

One plan would combine Laguna Niguel and its disputed coastline with a city of Dana Point/Laguna Niguel, task force chairman Bruce Rasner said. The other would split a portion of the coastal area with Dana Point.

Plans Sent to Lafco

The task force last week sent those plans to the Local Agency Formation Commission, the county agency that studies and rules on incorporation issues and boundaries, Rasner said.

On Wednesday, Lafco is scheduled to reconsider its December decision to give the coastal strip to the proposed city of Dana Point/Capistrano Beach, after a majority of voters in the disputed territory last November stated their preference to be a part of Dana Point.

Lafco's December decision came as a surprise to task force members who had not expected any final action on the Laguna Niguel incorporation issue and had not turned out in force.

But Wednesday will be different, task force organizers vowed Sunday.

"They (Lafco commissioners) are going to have to contend with an audience who won't stand for anything but a Laguna Niguel with a coastal indentity," Rasner told the audience. "The reason for tonight is to show our solidarity."

Many inland Laguna Niguel residents see Wednesday's meeting as their last chance to keep their coastline. Although task force officials have already filed a lawsuit against Lafco for alleged violations of the state code in awarding the disputed area to the proposed city of Dana Point, they said they would rather settle the matter out of court, Rasner said.

Laguna Niguel resident Mike Padilla said he sacrificed his Sunday night because he thought Lafco's previous decision was unfair. The only way, he said, to change the minds of the commissioners is to show community support for keeping the coastline.

Padilla and several other residents said they plan to take off work Wednesday to attend the afternoon meeting.

In addition to the current incorporation proposals for Laguna Niguel and Dana Point/Capistrano Beach, Rasner said Laguna Niguel's cityhood leaders on Wednesday will ask Lafco to address:

- A combined city called Dana Niguel, comprised of Laguna Niguel, its coast, Dana Point and Capistrano Beach.

- An abridged Laguna Niguel, dividing up the Niguel coast so that everything southeast of Niguel Road would go to Dana Point, and the area northwest of Niguel Road would go to Laguna Niguel.

The original Laguna Niguel cityhood proposal called for a city that would stretch from South Laguna to Dana Point bounded by the San Diego Freeway and the ocean.

Those who attended Sunday night's meeting made donations to Laguna Niguel's legal fund and were given bumper stickers that read "Save Sea Country." Developers have long promoted Laguna Niguel as "Sea Country," stretching from the San Diego Freeway to the ocean.

Dec. 2 Vote

But Lafco--which recommends incorporation proposals to the county Board of Supervisors--voted Dec. 2 to give the coastal strip to Dana Point, following a Nov. 2 advisory election in which 61% of the coastal-area residents voted to incorporate with Dana Point rather than remain in Laguna Niguel's proposed boundaries.

But Padilla and other residents argued Sunday that the boundaries for the advisory election were arbitrarily decided and that the entire Laguna Niguel community should have been allowed to vote.

"This really upsets me," Padilla said. "I have an ocean view from my house, but I didn't get to vote. They established boundaries that don't even include all of the coastal area."

"We feel a lot has gone on without the public knowing," added resident Pam Adams. "The people are going to have to become more involved. Otherwise, we'd be isolated and there would be no way we'd have our own city. We'd be nothing but homes and a few, teeny, tiny shopping centers."

Motivating Factor

Some residents at the rally said it took the sudden decision by Lafco to motivate them.

Phil and Dru Engle were making their first appearance at a communitywide meeting, although they were familiar with the issue from their homeowners' association meetings. They decided it was time to get involved to keep the coastal strip in Laguna Niguel.

"We've got our two ("Save Sea Country") bumper stickers now," Phil Engle said. "We've been aware, but we've been lazy."

"We've read leaflets," Dru Engle said. "We were somewhat aware of what's going on. . . . But we did not become active until we realized that Lafco did this cute little number."

13 Subdivisions

The coastal area in contention consists of 13 subdivisions between Laguna Niguel's northern and southern boundaries but ending at Del Avion in the east.

Two weeks ago, commissioners decided they would conduct additional public hearings on both cityhood proposals on advice from Lafco's legal counsel.

Niguel leaders say they were not legally notified of a Dec. 2 meeting when Lafco discussed the coastal strip and gave it to Dana Point. The Ralph M. Brown Act requires governmental agencies to provide public notice of meetings.

In addition, the task force filed a lawsuit against Lafco, charging the commission with violating the California Government Code, which requires Lafco to consider how an incorporation will affect the areas adjacent to the proposed city.

Decision May Stand

Lafco officials have said they probably will stand by their original decision to give the coastal strip to Dana Point, stating that they are committed to implementing the results of the advisory election.

Laguna Niguel leaders said they are trying to find a compromise proposal with Dana Point, but leaders in the Dana Point/Capistrano Beach effort have said they are not interested in a joining city, or in dividing up the coastal area.

The coastal strip includes the lucrative Ritz-Carlton Hotel, representing $2.5 million in revenue. Under Laguna Niguel's divided coast proposal, the Ritz-Carlton would be in Laguna Niguel, not Dana Point.

Alternative Plans

But task force members said they submitted the two alternative plans anyway, as a last-minute effort to open up further negotiations with Lafco.

"This is not our preference, but at least we can get something on the table," Rasner said of the alternatives.

Rasner also told the audience that there may be some hope if commissioners take the recommendation of the Lafco staff members, who provide background information on the incorporation proposals.

As they have in the past, staff members Wednesday will recommend that the coastal strip remain in Laguna Niguel.

In the staff report, Lafco Executive Director Richard Turner writes: "The exclusion of the very desirable coastal strip from the proposed City of Dana Point would no doubt be very disappointing to many residents. However, these ties developed over the past several months pale in comparison to the ties that Laguna Niguel residents have developed over the past two decades."

Cheers From Crowd

When Rasner read the staff report at Sunday's meeting, the crowd burst into applause.

"That sounds pretty good to me," Rasner told the audience. "But remember, they (commissioners) did manage to reject the staff recommendation before."

Task force leader Pat Bates asked those planning to attend Wednesday's meeting to wear blue and white so that they will be easily visible as members of the Laguna Niguel contingent.

"We want to have a presence felt, rather than a rah-rah session," she told them, referring to a November Lafco meeting where 400 Laguna Niguel residents showed up with placards and led cheers before the commission.

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