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Leisure World Awaits Cityhood Action : Seniors Sharply Divided Over Laguna Hills Bid

Times Staff Writer

The meeting was starting to degenerate into name-calling. One resident labeled the opposition “a flock of locusts,” which prompted a loud chorus of boos. He then shot back: “Sometimes I think I live in Jersey City.”

It was not the kind of behavior associated with normally serene Leisure World, a community of 21,000 where life tends to revolve around the golf course and shuffleboard court. But this wasn’t the first time in the 25-year history of the Laguna Hills community that the issue on the table had stirred emotions.

With new housing tracts and shopping centers springing up on all sides, Leisure World residents are deciding whether they should take the big step--join a proposed city of Laguna Hills or remain an unincorporated enclave?

Crucial Vote Wednesday

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The issue that has divided the community will peak Wednesday when the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to place the cityhood measure on the ballot. Groups of retirees, pro and con, are planning to trek up to Santa Ana to speak their minds.

The meeting promises to be heated. LAFCO’s staff has already recommended denial of the cityhood petition, citing the controversy within Leisure World that it says imperils a successful election to incorporate.

And if the issue does go on the ballot, experts predict that Leisure World, which would make up almost half of the proposed city of 45,000, would hold the key to the proposal’s success.

“If a majority of Leisure World voters were to vote against incorporation, it is unlikely that the measure would pass,” said LAFCO executive office James J. Colangelo.

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The two sides that tangled at the Leisure World public forum earlier this month are firmly divided in their feelings on cityhood.

Supporters cite the fact that three of the four boards that govern areas of Leisure World have elected to join Laguna Hills, as did 4,700 residents who signed a petition in December. The Golden Rain Foundation, a group of residents appointed by the boards to lead the entire community, has also accepted the plan.

“We want a greater voice and more control over the things that affect us that are now handled by the county,” said Nick Ugrin, president of the Golden Rain board.

But on the other side of the issue, the governing board of the 360-resident Leisure World Towers--twin high-rises of 14 stories that dominate the community’s horizon--has voted against cityhood.

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Survey Shows 75% Opposed

Two informal surveys by Leisure World News, the community newspaper, showed 75% of the residents opposed to cityhood.

Anti-cityhood proponents complain that the Leisure World governing body has failed to hold a community referendum to determine support.

Glenn Siler, 86, summed up the “anti” sentiment while returning from a round of golf one recent sunny afternoon: “I think Leisure World is in pretty good shape right within these walls. I would say, leave Leisure World right the way it is and encourage cityhood on the outside--with emphasis on the outside.”

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Cityhood is not a new issue for Leisure World. As early as 1979, Leisure World leaders began exploring the possibility of incorporating their own community when nearby Irvine made annexation overtures in their direction.

Leisure World’s governing boards voted in 1982 to seek their own incorporation, but the cityhood drive was dropped only a year later when it was learned that forming a city does not prevent an outside community such as El Toro from petitioning to be annexed to it.

Early last year, organizers of a proposed Saddleback Valley city drew boundary lines but didn’t include Leisure World at the retirement community’s request.

But Leisure World community leaders were so concerned about being annexed

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against their will that they decided to cast their lot with a group called Citizens to Save Laguna Hills, an anti-Saddleback Valley cityhood group that submitted its own incorporation plan.

LAFCO tabled any action on the Laguna Hills proposal until after the Saddleback Valley incorporation measure was voted down at the polls last Nov. 8.

For the pro-cityhood advocates, a city of Laguna Hills would have several advantages over the earlier proposal to incorporate just Leisure World, according to cityhood supporter Al Hanson, who is chairman of the Golden Rain Foundation’s government and public relations committee.

For one thing, he said, the Leisure World-only plan would have had an estimated $232,000 surplus after the first year, compared to the more than $6 million in surplus projected for Laguna Hills.

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And by belonging to a larger city, Hanson maintained, Leisure World would have more control over El Toro Road, Moulton Parkway and other heavily traveled public streets which bisect the retirement community.

Leisure World would also have more voice on regional issues, such as joint military-commercial use of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, a proposal that has much of the south county up in arms.

“Believe me, the reason I became involved in this (cityhood campaign) is because we’re in a desperate fight,” Doyle Selden, a cityhood proponent who lives under the flight path of El Toro, said at the Jan. 3 forum. “We’re going to have a disaster here if we let civilian cargo planes come flying over.” He argues that a city would have much more clout than would individual homeowners.

But city opponents argued that even cityhood couldn’t stop development projects which are already under way. Nor, they said, could one city really have much impact on major regional issues such as civilian-military use of El Toro.

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And, they maintained, Leisure World doesn’t need any more control over outside public streets because it is already paying taxes to a community services district for street upkeep and maintenance.

Wallace E. Bjornson, chairman of the Committee Against Incorporation, said that since the community is gated, privately maintained and patrolled by its own security force, a city could provide nothing in the way of additional services. Rather, Bjornson maintained, the retirees would pay taxes to support parks and improvements for the outside community.

In addition, Leisure World’s carefully tended townhouses, condominiums and clubhouses would be subject to inspection by the city, cityhood opponent Milton Nathanson pointed out.

He said: “Can the city come in to Leisure World and say, ‘Your apartments have dry rot. Tear down and replace’?”

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But many Leisure Worlders are attracted to cityhood because they believe that the retirement community would wield great clout by virtue of its large, politically active population.

With Leisure World accounting for nearly half the residents if Laguna Hills becomes a city--and the retirees turning out at the polls in numbers as high as 80%--city proponents say they will be a force to be reckoned with on any city council.

“I think we’d have something to say,” Herb Schwartz, a Leisure World cityhood leader, said.

But Bjornson said Leisure Worlders are too old to serve effectively on a city council. With an average age of 76, Bjornson, who is 71, said a council member elected from Leisure World could never amass enough seniority to gain much political power.

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Hanson, for one, is tired of the debate and said it’s time that Leisure World residents make a decision before someone else makes a decision for them.

“There comes a time when a window opens and you jump through it,” Hanson said at the raucous meeting earlier this month.

Cityhood proponent John Conway shot back: “Why do you want to jump out the window? You jump on your head.”

FACTS ABOUT LEISURE WORLD, LAGUNA HILLS Average age: 76

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Population: 21,000

Female to male ratio: Female 55% and male 45%

Background: Most residents came from professional background.

Opened: Sept. 10, 1964

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Builder: Rossmoor Corp.

Today: Leisure World has 12,736 dwelling units and takes up 21,000 acres or 3.25 square miles.

Source: Tim Taylor, spokesman for Professional Community Management Inc.


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