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Park Tenants Brace for Grim Future : Laguna Beach: Rent control opponents, however, say mobile home residents are being given an unnecessarily bleak picture.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A day after a rent control ordinance for mobile home parks was narrowly rejected in a special city election, park owners called for a reconciliation with angry tenants while residents steadied themselves for an uncertain future.

“I’ve never felt so bad,” said Ed Stephan, who erected a “For Sale” sign in front of his Treasure Island mobile home at 3 a.m. Wednesday, hours after learning that the ordinance, on the city ballot as Measure A, had been rejected by less than 300 votes. “Definitely, we’ve got to move.”

Had voters endorsed Measure A, mobile home park rents would have been rolled back to January, 1989, levels and annual rent increases would have been limited to 7% of a tenant’s current rent or 75% of the annual increase in the consumer price index, whichever was less. Over the past year, consumer prices have risen 3%.

The emotional election campaign divided opponents of the measure, who charged that it would have opened the door to rent control on all rental properties in the city, and supporters who feared that the park owners would raise rents sky-high to force out residents and allow massive development of the prime, scenic coastal lands that house the parks.

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The hard-fought battles drew 41% of the city’s 16,161 registered voters the polls for the single-issue election.

On Wednesday, as supporters of Measure A mourned the loss and continued to charge that opponents--who spent a city record of more than $160,000 on the campaign--bought the election, park owners said rent control proponents were painting an unnecessarily bleak picture for mobile home tenants.

“We’re all humbled by the entire process, it’s been an incredible thing,” said Darren Esslinger, whose family owns and operates Laguna Terrace Park. “We’re going to go out of our way to heal the wounds and we’re going to go out of our way to ensure that anybody in need is taken care of. And there will be no rent gouging.”

Still, mobile home park owners said there will be some increases. Richard Hall, a Costa Mesa businessman who is co-owner of Treasure Island park, said rents will likely increase at a rate of 7% per year as a result of Measure A’s defeat.

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“The rent increases are going to be consistent with the previous ownership and with our ownership,” Hall said. “I’m thankful for all the support we got, but today life goes on as usual.”

But Treasure Island tenants interviewed Wednesday continued to argue that their lives will drastically change. Steadily increasing rents already are forcing neighbors from the park, they said, along with making it all but impossible to sell their homes to anyone but park owners. Some said they will continue to fight rent increases, but would not outline future battle plans.

“I’ve dried a lot of tears and I’ve wept some myself,” Treasure Island resident Connie Vlasis said. “If (Hall) wants to keep it a mobile home park, he will not raise the rents any higher than they are because everybody is just maxed out.”

City Council members, who were divided over mobile home park rent control since it first became an issue in Laguna Beach two years ago, expressed contradictory views about what the vote means for the city’s future.

Mayor Neil G. Fitzpatrick and Councilwoman Martha Collison, both rent control opponents, said Measure A’s defeat opens the door for more positive negotiations between the city and park owners over voluntary rent ceilings.

But council members Robert F. Gentry and Ann Christoph, who along with Councilwoman Lida Lenney voted to approve mobile home park rent control last summer only to see the law blocked by a swiftly launched referendum drive, said removal of rent limitations could signal the demise of Treasure Island, the city’s largest park.

“I think it’s tragic,” Christoph said. “I think it’s going to be a very sad thing we’re going to witness.”

Gentry added that he felt the election results ultimately were tipped by the massive spending by the No on A campaign, which outspent Yes on A forces 5 to 1 and made the campaign the costliest in city history.

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“Had both sides had the same amount of money to spend on the election, I think we would have seen a very different outcome,” Gentry said.

Those who fought to defeat Measure A, however, said the spending was meant to “level the playing field” since park tenants and most of the council supported the measure going in.

“It was one of the toughest races I’ve ever run, just trying to understand how to get to folks,” said Lynn Wessell, owner of the Wessell Co., a Burbank firm that ran the campaign against the measure and has waged about 80% of the state’s battles against rent control.

“It was a real challenge in terms of reading the political landscape and then delivering the message to those groups of people,” he said. “There’s a very unusual political mix (in Laguna Beach). It’s just not normal.”

Since park owners have now purchased about 25% of Treasure Island’s mobile homes, tenants say they fear the park is slowly being targeted for another use. Although the land is now zoned only for a mobile home park, tenants fear park owners will pressure a future City Council to rezone the land to allow redevelopment.

While Treasure Island owners have described redevelopment plans in the past, Hall has recently declined to elaborate on possible plans for the park. On Wednesday, however, some residents said their futures have been determined by Tuesday’s election.

After learning of the results during what was supposed to be a victory celebration at Treasure Island, Ed Stephan, who has shared an oceanfront mobile home with a roommate for 10 years, said he visited other neighbors to advise them of the vote. When he returned home about 1 a.m. Wednesday, Stephan said he wrote thank-you letters to supporters of Measure A and then put a “For Sale” sign in front of his home.

“If Hall comes to buy, I’m going to have to sell it to him,” Stephan said. “I know we’re not going to get anywhere with anyone else.”

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But Hall said Wednesday residents have been worrying unnecessarily. He said senior citizens called him after learning of the election results, fearing they will be ousted from their homes by rising rents. But Hall said the park will keep in place an agreement with about 31 seniors not to raise their rents if they cannot afford it.

“Our senior citizen benefits are not going to go away,” he said. “We’re just going to try to calm things down. Another chapter in the book on Treasure Island has been closed.”

FINAL ELECTION RETURNS

Laguna Beach Measure A--Mobile Home Rent Control

100% Precincts Reporting

Votes % Yes 3,154 48.0 No 3,415 52.0

* Winning side of measures are in bold type.


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