South County Proposals : Polarization Marks Annexation Debates

Times Staff Writer

Nick Ugrin and Wallace Bjornson live within the same walled confines of the sprawling Leisure World retirement complex in Laguna Hills.

Yet they were on opposite sides Wednesday at an acrimonious public hearing on south Orange County cityhood issues. Ugrin, president of the governing foundation of the retirement community of 21,000 residents, testified in favor of a merger with the proposed city of Laguna Hills; Bjornson threw cold water on it.

Herbert Heyes and Ron Kennedy also are neighbors, in Aegean Hills. But they, too, disagreed over the proposed annexation of their unincorporated community by the city of Mission Viejo. Kennedy said he favors immediate annexation; Heyes is dead set against it.


These disagreements typified the polarization among more than 100 south Orange County residents who crowded into a 3-hour hearing Wednesday before the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission. It was the second hearing in a year set by LAFCO to air assorted cityhood drives and annexation efforts that have entangled unincorporated south county areas in recent years.

Shaking his head in exasperation, LAFCO Commissioner Don R. Roth said afterward: “I think we got the full load today. It was like the preacher giving nine sermons on the same Sunday.”

In all, six proposals were pitched Wednesday to the five-member commission, which reviews annexation and incorporation proposals and decides whether they can go forward or be put to a vote of residents.

Among the annexation or cityhood plans were:

- Combining the 21,000 residents of Leisure World with about 24,000 residents in surrounding neighborhoods to form a city of Laguna Hills.

- Incorporating Laguna Niguel as a city that eventually would have more than 60,000 residents.

- Merging Laguna Niguel and Laguna Hills into one super-city, a suggestion by the LAFCO staff.

- Allowing the city of Mission Viejo--with its 68,000 residents--to annex Aegean Hills, a community of 7,000 adjoining the city, which became incorporated only last March.

- Considering eventual cityhood for the El Toro-Lake Forest area by endorsing the two adjoining communities’ creation of a Municipal Advisory Council and then a Community Services District. Those steps are a prelude to incorporation.

- Allowing the city of San Clemente to claim 11,000 acres of rural land within its sphere of influence, a step that would precede annexation.

While the Aegean Hills annexation plan involved a relatively small number of residents, it sparked the most debate and controversy at Wednesday’s hearing. The five-member Mission Viejo City Council has voted unanimously to pursue the annexation. LAFCO is to consider the Aegean Hills matter at a separate hearing Feb. 1.

Representatives of the Mission Viejo Co., developer of the planned community of Mission Viejo, adamantly opposed the annexation, as did a number of Mission Viejo residents, on grounds the community’s master design was not intended to include adjoining neighborhoods.

Burden for City

“Let’s not dilute the planned community,” said John Ben, vice chairman of the Citizens’ Action Committee of Mission Viejo.

Wanda Driskill, chairwoman of the committee, said many residents also object to the annexation request because it would prove too burdensome for the new city. Driskill said the city is having trouble even putting a staff in place, adding that the new government has lost a city manager and has 16 unfilled staff positions.

Arguing in favor of the annexation plan were Kennedy and James Burns, Aegean Hills residents and members of the Citizens to Unify Mission Viejo, which first applied for annexation a year ago. The annexation request was tabled by LAFCO pending an election Nov. 8 to determine the outcome of a proposed city of Saddleback Valley. Both Aegean Hills and Laguna Hills were part of that cityhood proposal, which went down to defeat by a 2-to-1 margin.

“Why do it now?” Burns asked rhetorically of the Aegean Hills annexation request. “Because we’ve waited and it’s our turn.”

Proponents of a city of Laguna Hills told LAFCO members that they, too, had waited patiently for the outcome of valleywide cityhood and that it was their turn for consideration as well. LAFCO is to take up the question of cityhood for Laguna Hills at a Jan. 25 meeting.

Failure of the valleywide incorporation effort “was an overwhelming defeat of the larger city,” said Alan Songstad, a Laguna Hills lawyer who is leading the drive to form a city of Laguna Hills. “Now we are the only proposal involving this area.”

The Laguna Hills cityhood plan also spurred controversy beyond the boundaries of Leisure World. Some residents of neighboring El Toro complained that a new city would siphon off lucrative tax revenue from the Laguna Hills Mall, even though the mall draws customers from the entire region, including El Toro.

LAFCO Staff Proposal

LAFCO staff members acknowledged that creation of new cities such as Laguna Hills could divert revenue from nearby unincorporated areas.

In an effort to address that concern, LAFCO Executive Officer Jim Colangelo submitted a report to commission members earlier Wednesday urging them to consider incorporation of a much larger area than Laguna Hills, suggesting a merger of Laguna Hills with Laguna Niguel.

Such a merger, Colangelo said, would more equitably distribute the south county’s tax revenue. He noted that Laguna Hills’ proposal includes about 36% of the unincorporated south county’s population, but about 50% of the area’s sales tax and hotel bed tax revenue. In contrast, he said, Laguna Niguel cityhood would include about 19% of the area’s residents and 15% of the revenue.

Combined, though, Colangelo said Laguna Hills and Laguna Niguel consist of 55% of the residents and 64% of the revenue of the area. With Laguna Niguel projected to continue growing in population, Colangelo predicted the two communities eventually would become closer in population.

“The combination of these two areas would represent a more equitable distribution of revenues than would either of these proposals by themselves,” Colangelo said in his report to the commissioners.

However, Laguna Niguel and Laguna Hills cityhood leaders maintained that such a merger would not work because the communities have totally separate identities.

Jim Krembas, president of the Laguna Niguel Community Services District, also told LAFCO that his community has had its cityhood request--submitted in December, 1986--postponed long enough.

Laguna Niguel’s Dreams

Since then, Laguna Niguel has battled neighboring Dana Point over a tax-rich coastal strip. Dana Point eventually won in court. At a November town hall meeting, however, more than 500 Laguna Niguel residents voted overwhelmingly to pursue cityhood with or without the coastal strip.

“Laguna Niguel has dreams,” Krembas said. “You must now concur that it is time to let our citizens get on with their lives.”

LAFCO on Wednesday set a Feb. 15 meeting to consider the Laguna Niguel request.

After the public testimony ended, the LAFCO commissioners took no action, but expressed a willingness to press on with the incorporation and annexation plans.

“I think it is time to move ahead with the future of south Orange County,” said Commissioner Donald A. Holt Jr., who is leaving LAFCO later this year to move to Chicago.