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Laguna Hills Cityhood Plan Goes on Ballot

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Times Staff Writer

Overruling its own staff and the objections of numerous residents, a county commission voted Wednesday to put the fate of the proposed city of Laguna Hills before voters in June.

The surprise action by the Local Agency Formation Commission sets up a major political confrontation between well-organized backers of the cityhood plan and scores of vocal opponents, many of them embittered leaders of a doomed attempt to incorporate the entire Saddleback Valley, including Laguna Hills. The Laguna Hills cityhood faction was largely responsible for defeat of that valleywide measure Nov. 8.

“I am absolutely opposed to this city, and I will fight it,” said Dale White, a Laguna Hills resident who chaired the Yes! For Cityhood Committee that promoted the valleywide plan. “LAFCO wants us to fight in the streets of the Saddleback Valley.”

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But a beaming Melody Carruth, co-chair of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills, which submitted the incorporation request, said: “I’m extremely gratified. Now it’s a matter of going out and educating the public that this is a good plan.”

LAFCO made its decision on a 4-1 vote after hearing more than 2 hours of public testimony. The county commission screens cityhood requests and annexation proposals in unincorporated areas of Orange County.

The vote was greeted by shouts of “No! No!” from cityhood opponents, many of them residents of the Leisure World retirement community, which would be included in the proposed city. But cityhood proponents--roughly half the audience of about 100 Laguna Hills residents in the jammed commission hearing room--broke into cheers and began hugging each other afterward.

Only alternate Commissioner James H. Flora dissented, saying he agreed with a LAFCO staff report recommending denial of the new city because it would rob adjoining unincorporated areas of tax revenue they would need to form cities and make it difficult to coordinate regional planning. The staff had suggested that the commission, instead, consider forming mega-cities.

But Commissioner Donald A. Holt Jr., who introduced the motion for the vote, said Laguna Hills city proponents had earned their right to have the measure decided at the polls, because their request has been pending for nearly a year with LAFCO.

The Laguna Hills proposal, filed with LAFCO on March 18 by Citizens to Save Laguna Hills, was shelved by the commission pending the outcome of the Saddleback Valley measure. LAFCO agreed to take it up again if the valleywide proposal was defeated.

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Commissioner Gaddi H. Vasquez, an Orange County supervisor whose district includes part of the county’s southern region, explained his vote to put the plan on the ballot by saying he was not convinced that formation of smaller cities such as Laguna Hills would preclude regional planning. Vasquez said he also doubted the rest of the fast-growing region would have trouble acquiring its share of the area’s tax revenue.

Although the County Board of Supervisors must approve the LAFCO action before it becomes final, Vasquez said that was only a formality. Supervisors are expected to act on the matter in 2 weeks. Vasquez said that LAFCO, in its haste, neglected to set an exact date for the cityhood election and will do so at its meeting Wednesday.

At the polls, voters in the area marked for incorporation will be asked to create a wedge-shaped city containing an estimated 45,000 residents on 6,000 acres between Interstate 5 on the east and the Aliso Viejo planned community on the west. The city would border unincorporated Laguna Niguel on the south and the city of Irvine on the north. The private, gated Leisure World community of 21,000 residents would form the geographical core of the new city.

If approved in June, Laguna Hills would become Orange County’s 29th city Oct. 1. According to a feasibility study prepared for Citizens to Save Laguna Hills, the new city would have a budget surplus of more than $6 million, with much of its revenue coming from the Laguna Hills Mall.

But LAFCO Chairman Evelyn R. Hart, a Newport Beach city councilwoman, cautioned that that surplus estimate was probably too optimistic.

“You don’t have surpluses in a city,” Hart said in attaching a provision to LAFCO’s vote that the new city would be allowed to expand its state-mandated appropriations limit from $25 million to $30 million.

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The new city’s first challenge, however, will be in becoming a city at all.

Cityhood proponents conceded their major challenge will be to overcome strong opposition from some residents of Leisure World, whose leadership has endorsed the proposal. Supporters of the valleywide city also oppose the Laguna Hills incorporation.

Of the 30 or so people who testified Wednesday, half favored cityhood and half opposed it.

City supporters cited the need for the community to retain its own identity, separate from a valleywide city that would encompass many diverse communities.

“I knew that if Saddleback City came into being, the ballgame was over. There would no longer be a Laguna Hills,” said Dave Blodgett, a Leisure World resident. “I live in Laguna Hills. My mailing address is Laguna Hills. Call it tribalism, but the need to identify with a small, well-integrated, cohesive, friendly, compatible and inclusive community is a powerful driving force.”

Carruth said Laguna Hills has outgrown its dependence on the county for essential services and needs to start fending for itself. She said the drive for cityhood has been building for 8 years. “Laguna Hills has reached a point in its evolution where the people are ready to govern themselves,” she said.

Opponents, however, argued that the Laguna Hills proposal would not work because too many people are against the plan.

Within Leisure World, for example, opposition as high as 75% has been shown in informal polls by the local newspaper. But directors of the Golden Rain Foundation, which runs the community, say they have collected 4,700 signatures from residents supporting cityhood. However, some residents claimed they unknowingly signed the cityhood petition.

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“We’re a separate community. We don’t need to be included with anyone else,” said Gilbert Nelson, an 18-year resident of the retirement community. “We’re getting along beautifully without” cityhood.

John W. Luhring, vice-chairman of Leisure World’s Committee Against Incorporation of Laguna Hills, added that there is nothing a city could give the private community that it does not already provide for itself.

“The city revenues would be expended in providing services for the area outside Leisure World,” Luhring said.

Outside Leisure World, the proposed city also would be too small to provide for such necessities as day-care centers and athletic fields, said White, the proponent of a valleywide city. With many Laguna Hills homes in the range of $400,000 and up, White also said the city would have trouble providing an adequate supply of affordable housing.

The Laguna Hills proposal drew mixed support from outside the proposed city boundaries. Representatives of the proposed city of Laguna Niguel say they support the Laguna Hills plan, mainly to dissuade the commission from lumping the two communities into one mega-city, as the LAFCO staff had suggested.

But representatives from El Toro, Lake Forest and Aegean Hills--all of which were included in the valleywide incorporation plan--registered strong opposition, saying that Laguna Hills would take some of their tax revenue.

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“Cityhood for Laguna Hills is a crackpot scheme that fails to take into account the legitimate rights of adjacent communities to share the tax revenues of a mall that is ‘Laguna Hills’ in name only,” El Toro resident Frank Steiger said.

James J. Colangelo, the LAFCO executive officer who prepared a report recommending that the commission turn down the Laguna Hills cityhood request, was conspicuously neutral Wednesday. The commission rarely rejects the recommendations of its staff.

Although he made strong points in the report, Colangelo reacted to the commission’s decision with aplomb. The report gave the commission a choice of rejecting the proposal, as he wanted, or going ahead with it.

“Obviously they were not in agreement with me,” Colangelo said.

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