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Cityhood Seen as Survival in El Toro and Laguna Hills

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In what may be their last shot at municipal self-rule, residents of El Toro and Laguna Hills are preparing for a March 5 election that will decide whether these two communities become the county’s 30th and 31st cities.

For the communities, both in the rapidly growing South County, where almost any sliver of land is coveted by developers, the clamor for cityhood goes beyond the simple question of self-governance. Cityhood proponents say it is a matter of survival.

In Laguna Hills, where large commercial developments including Laguna Hills Mall generate millions of dollars in sales tax revenue, proponents argue that without incorporation, surrounding cities will divide up and annex the revenue-rich areas until there is nothing left of Laguna Hills.

And after years of watching Orange County officials take their tax money to pay for services throughout the county, many Laguna Hills and El Toro residents want those dollars to stay in their neighborhoods, where they can be spent on athletic fields, traffic improvements and other local needs unmet by the county.

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The three-year struggle toward independence in both areas has been fraught with roadblocks, including opposition from some county officials who fear that the new cities will divert vital tax revenue from the county’s dwindling budget.

The El Toro and Laguna Hills cities would be expected to cost the county $7.7 million the first year in lost sales and property taxes and fees that residents would begin paying to the new cities.

That amount would be in addition to the $10 million in net revenue losses suffered by the county annually because of the incorporations of Dana Point, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo that occurred in the late 1980s.

Like other recently created cities, El Toro and Laguna Hills will contract with the county for Sheriff’s Department patrols, fire protection, paramedic service, animal and flood control, library services and insect-breeding control.

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The cities will provide road maintenance, street lighting, parks and recreation facilities, planning, building safety and code enforcement.

City council candidates in both proposed cities say they hope to be different from their neighbors in Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo in one important way: They hope to avoid the political pitfalls that have led to recall petition movements and acrimonious council debates.

Norman P. Murray, who served on Mission Viejo’s Municipal Advisory Council and Community Services District before becoming the city’s first mayor, offered this advice to the prospective new council members in El Toro and Laguna Hills:

“The major lessons are to take your time and do your homework,” Murray said. “Don’t rush into things. Today’s emergency may look like tomorrow’s commonplace.”

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EL TORO: Something Old, Something New

Heritage Hill Park could be considered a microcosm of El Toro.

The 3-acre park unceremoniously tucked behind a mini-mall at the intersection of Lake Forest Drive and Serrano Road contains historical sites, including St. George’s Mission, the first community church and the 100-year-old El Toro Grammar School.

Some of the county’s oldest neighborhoods and newest planned communities are both here. Cityhood proponents see the March 5 referendum as a chance to solve what they view as the community’s identity crisis.

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“Cityhood would definitely give the area community spirit and a true sense of identity,” said Martha Burgoon, a manager of Lakeview Real Estate Co. “Property here is cheaper because El Toro is a well-kept secret. . . . It’s not as heavily advertised” as neighboring Irvine and Mission Viejo.

Many people associate El Toro with the Marine Corps Air Station, but the base is not part of the proposed 15-square-mile city that would include the districts of El Toro, Lake Forest, Serrano Highlands and Serrano Park.

The city would be bordered by Interstate 5 on the south and Santiago Canyon Road on the north, Irvine and the Marine base on the west and Mission Viejo on the east. Its population of 58,000 would make it about the size of Fountain Valley.

Helen Wilson, who was a leader of the Community Coalition for Incorporation before declaring her candidacy for the proposed El Toro City Council, said local control is the primary reason for cityhood.

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“We need to take control of our own destiny,” Wilson said. “We have to replace disinterested and distant levels of government.”

All 11 candidates agree that there needs to be increased police protection to combat a rising gang problem, improvement of community parks and controlled growth.

Traffic is another problem, particularly on El Toro Road, where commuter congestion has left officials scrambling for relief.

“Manhattan has nothing over that street,” said Robert W. Forsberg, a former resident of Long Island and council candidate.

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Another problem involves what the Local Agency Formation Commission describes as the proposed city’s “somewhat tenuous financial position.”

A LAFCO report stated that El Toro would have the lowest per-capita income of any city in South County. Laguna Hills, for example, would generate as much revenue as El Toro while serving less than half the population, according to LAFCO.

But cityhood supporters cite an independent consultant’s survey showing a $2-million surplus in the city’s first year of operation.

William Millan, a longtime El Toro resident, announced plans last week to start an anti-cityhood effort, citing the disparity in per-capita income between Laguna Hills ($516) and El Toro ($224).

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“Laguna Hills got the gold mine, and El Toro got the shaft,” he said.

Candidate Ray Wallenthin, a local businessman, disagreed. “We can’t worry about other people’s pie,” he said. “There is little doubt that we are feasible, and we have to ensure that our local tax dollars are spent in El Toro.”

LAGUNA HILLS: Tax-Rich Area Is Coveted

In some ways, cityhood proponents in Laguna Hills are like farmers trying to guard the henhouse from a hungry fox. Unless they protect their tax base, they fear that their tax-rich areas will be annexed by neighboring cities.

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And as the dollars flee, so will the identity of Laguna Hills as a community, said Ellen Martin, chairwoman of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills.

At a distance, the rows of housing developments in the proposed city’s 5-square-mile area look like any other in South County. But a closer look reveals a diverse community of 23,000 residents, including the low- to moderate-income Via Lomas neighborhood and the upscale, equestrian community of Nellie Gail Ranch.

Its high school is known for its football team and state Academic Decathlon championship, and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center is “downtown,” near Laguna Hills Mall.

The proposed city is surrounded by Laguna Niguel to the south, Mission Viejo and Interstate 5 to the east, El Toro and Irvine to the north and unincorporated county land to the west.

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Unincorporated Leisure World on the west and Aliso Viejo on the south would not be part of the proposed city.

And some original Laguna Hills neighborhoods between the proposed city’s northern boundary and Irvine were excluded from the plan by county officials, who want to continue collecting tax revenue from those districts. But cityhood proponents have vowed to annex north Laguna Hills after the city is incorporated.

As a city, Laguna Hills would have more than enough money to provide basic services. In the first full year of operation, the city would be expected to receive more than $10 million from taxes and fees and spend $6.7 million. That would leave a $3.3-million budget surplus.

Residents say they are tired of seeing their tax dollars leave the area while county services decrease with each new budget. Martin of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills offered as an example a park near her home that was planned by the county several years ago but not developed until recently--after nearby residents agreed to assess themselves to pick up the cost.

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Proponents also hope that cityhood brings the political clout needed to fight developers.

Cityhood proponents recently became alarmed when they learned that the county is preparing to turn over to Mission Viejo a strip of land near Cabot Road and Pacific Park Drive. The land is included in the proposed city limits of Laguna Hills but is needed by the Mission Viejo Development Co. to build a bridge over railroad tracks running along Interstate 5 to carry traffic into a parcel proposed for commercial development.

Had Laguna Hills already been incorporated, proponents argue, the city could have negotiated concessions from Mission Viejo or the developer to make sure the project does not adversely affect nearby Laguna Hills neighborhoods.

Several council candidates said their only hope now is for the County Board of Supervisors to delay approval of the Cabot Road action until after the cityhood vote.

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Candidate Melody Carruth said that if the new city is formed, the citizens will be the winners--and developers the losers.

While the development community has been involved in previous cityhood attempts, candidates said no organized opposition has surfaced in this election.

“I will be very surprised if it does not go,” candidate Leslie Allan Songstad Jr. said. “I do not see why people would vote against it.”

ON THE BALLOT

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* Voters in El Toro and Laguna Hills will decide whether their areas will become the newest cities in Orange County.

* Voters will choose five potential city council members for each city.

* El Toro voters will pick a name for the potential city from among El Toro, Lake Forest and Rancho Canada.

PROPOSED CITIES

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Laguna Hills Population: 23,000 Located: West of Mission Viejo, and north of Laguna Niguel, west of Interstate 5. Size: 5 square miles. Cost to county: $6.5 million for the first year in lost revenue, to be offset by $2.5 million paid by the city back to the county for basic services-a net revenue loss of $4 million.

El Toro Population: 58,000 Located: Between Irvine and Mission Viejo north and east of Interstate 5. Size: 15 square miles. Cost to county: $7.7 million the first year in lost revenue that would be offset by $4 million paid by the city back to the county to provide basic services, for a net revenue loss of $3.7 million.


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