When investor Dwight Whiting began enticing settlers to Orange County’s pristine Saddleback Valley during the 1880s, he proclaimed in advertisements published in the East that the area was so peaceful “there is no need of pistols or revolvers.”
A century later, peace no longer reigns in the valley. The issue of incorporating five communities into one city has bitterly divided valley residents. One group wants the city, another wants two cities instead of one, and still other residents don’t want any change at all.
The dispute will come to a head Nov. 8, when Saddleback Valley residents go to the polls to determine the fate of the valleywide incorporation proposal, Measure R. If they vote, by a simple majority, to incorporate, Orange County’s 29th city will come into existence Dec. 1--just in time to collect sales tax revenue during the lucrative Christmas shopping season.
The new city would include an estimated 77,000 residents in a boot-shaped, 16-square-mile area encompassing the communities of El Toro, Lake Forest, Portola Hills, Aegean Hills and Laguna Hills. It would have projected annual revenues of $25 million, derived mostly from existing property and sales taxes.
Voters also will decide Nov. 8 what to name the city, if incorporation is approved. They will choose from three proposed names--Saddleback Valley, Laguna Hills and Rancho Viejo--or will have the option of writing in another choice. And they will be asked to pick a five-member council, to be seated if Measure R is approved, from a slate of 18 candidates. Finally, voters will be asked whether to elect council members at large or by district in future elections.
The divisiveness over the issue erupted during a forum late last month at Laguna Hills High School, where speakers angrily interrupted one another and the opponents of the cityhood plan accused proponents of pandering to developers--an accusation the proponents denied.
The valleywide incorporation effort began about eight years ago and, at one time, also included then-unincorporated Mission Viejo as well as the community of Laguna Niguel. But the effort has met with resistance almost from the start.
After both Mission Viejo and Laguna Niguel opted to pursue their own incorporation plans--Mission Viejo became a city in March, and Laguna Niguel is still seeking to do so--the valleywide cityhood proponents mustered their forces to seek incorporation of the remainder of the area.
But they met resistance from the sprawling Leisure World retirement community in Laguna Hills and wound up excluding its 20,000 residents from the plan. Some residents in Laguna Hills and Aegean Hills have put up even stiffer resistance since the cityhood measure finally was placed on the ballot this year.
Some residents in Aegean Hills, a community of about 7,000 next to the new city of Mission Viejo, said they oppose the valleywide plan because they consider themselves more a part of Mission Viejo. In Laguna Hills, some residents have complained vociferously that a valleywide city would prove too diverse for fair representation.
Allan Songstad, an attorney who co-chairs the Citizens to Save Laguna Hills opposition group, argued that Laguna Hills, as one of the more established communities in the valley, should not be lumped into the same city as El Toro, a comparatively new community still facing massive development.
“I have great concern that we will be ignored,” Songstad said. “I’m not sure built-out areas (like Laguna Hills) are as sexy as developing areas.”
Songstad’s group has proposed a separate, smaller city including only Laguna Hills. The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission has put that proposal on hold pending the outcome of the valleywide cityhood vote. If the valleywide proposal fails, LAFCO has indicated that it will consider the Laguna Hills-only request. The two proposed cities contain overlapping boundaries, and each would include the tax-rich Laguna Hills Mall within its boundaries.
Dale White, chairman of the Yes! for Cityhood campaign, accused her Laguna Hills opponents of having an “elitist attitude” for not wanting to be in the same city as the rest of the valley. Songstad and many of the other Laguna Hills opponents live in the exclusive Nellie Gail Ranch community, perched atop hills overlooking the Saddleback Valley, White said.
White maintained that valley residents have many things in common: They commute to work on Interstate 5, they shop at Laguna Hills Mall and other local shopping centers, and their children attend many of the same schools.
And whether they live in Laguna Hills or Lake Forest, White said, valley residents share the heritage of the Saddleback Valley.
White and Songstad agree on at least one point: They both believe that growth in the Saddleback Valley has far outstripped the county’s ability to keep up with essential services such as traffic control and police protection, and that it is time for the city to assume control over such matters.
White cited, as an example, the valley’s experience in trying to get a traffic signal on Alicia Parkway at Wilkes Place, where youngsters have to cross six lanes of traffic to get to a nearby school.
She said it has taken two years to get the county to move that intersection from 40th on a list of most-needed traffic signals to second. The county installs only about three traffic lights a year countywide, since each one costs about $100,000.
Cityhood, White said, would mean that local residents could install a needed traffic signal much more quickly.
But the issue of local control also divides the organizations headed by White and Songstad. Songstad maintains that a valleywide city could not effectively address traffic issues in either Laguna Hills or Aegean Hills because those communities have different traffic patterns than the rest of the valley.
The traffic in Laguna Hills, he said, is routed north and south primarily, but in Aegean Hills the traffic is influenced mainly by adjoining Mission Viejo. In El Toro and Lake Forest, Songstad said, the traffic is routed mostly west and east.
But Bruce Mayall, another leader in the Yes! For Cityhood group, said that El Toro Road serves both Laguna Hills and El Toro and that it makes better planning sense to have one city dealing with the road’s problems than two.
Agreeing with Mayall is Ernie Schneider, director of the county’s Environmental Management Agency, who in June sent a letter to another county agency supporting the valleywide proposal because he said it would facilitate traffic planning on both sides of Interstate 5. Schneider said the Laguna Hills incorporation effort would not “effectively respond to regional concerns.”
Mayall added that a valleywide city would pack more clout on regional issues, such as proposed joint commercial-military use of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which many south Orange County residents oppose.
Songstad countered that regional issues are already being addressed by regional groups, and that the focus of the cityhood argument should remain on local issues.
One local issue, Songstad said, is whether the valleywide city would cater to the interests of developers, who, he said, have contributed 90% of the money to the pro-cityhood campaign. Citizens to Save Laguna Hills, he added, has collected no developer contributions.
According to campaign finance statements on file with the county registrar of voters, as of Sept. 30 the Yes! For Cityhood committee had received a total of $26,392 in both monetary and non-monetary contributions--of which 58% came from developers. Developers contributed 90%, however, of the $17,665 received in cash contributions, the disclosure records show.
White acknowledged that developers have contributed heavily to the cityhood effort but added that the movement was well under way before the contributions started rolling in this year and that they would have no undue influence.
White fired a salvo of her own at Citizens to Save Laguna Hills, saying that roughly half its citizen contributions are from the Nellie Gail Ranch community, where Songstad and other opposition leaders live.
Campaign finance statements for Residents to Protect Laguna Hills (the same group as Citizens to Save Laguna Hills) show that group receiving $15,473 in cash and loan contributions--almost all of it from local residents. Many of the residents gave addresses in the Nellie Gail Ranch neighborhood.
Melody Carruth, co-chair of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills, said Nellie Gail residents are represented so disproportionately because they have led the fight against valleywide cityhood.
Conspicuously quiet in the debate over cityhood have been the residents of El Toro and Lake Forest, who would make up the largest population of the valleywide city. Helen Wilson, president of the Lake Forest 1 Community Assn. and a council candidate, said that many of those residents are apathetic about the cityhood election because they have not received enough information about it.
White acknowledged the importance of the El Toro and Lake Forest areas to the cityhood campaign. She said that with the opposition to incorporation in Laguna Hills and Aegean Hills, the block of voters in El Toro and Lake Forest could “swing” the election.
A series of town forums will be held in El Toro and Lake Forest this month to better acquaint residents with the cityhood measure.
SADDLEBACK VALLEY CITY COUNCIL CANDIDATES
Residents of unincorporated Laguna Hills, Portola Hills, Aegean Hills, El Toro and Lake Forest will vote Nov. 8 on whether to incorporate south Orange County’s Saddleback Valley. If they decide to do so, they will then select a name for the new city and empanel a five-member city council from a slate of 18 candidates. Pictures were not available of two of the candidates: Bradley V. Foreman and Sol Schweitzer. Mary S. Anderson George W. Carter Clyde Childress William Connor Mark Foster Norma Graves Herbert H. Heyes Robert C. Kaitschuk William Kogerman Michael A. Martinez Vernon McKenny William R. Millan Marcia Rudolph Craig Scott G. Ann Van Haun Helen Wilson