Of Mice and . . . Menace : Troubles Keep Piling Up in San Clemente

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Before winter storms trashed five pricey homes, there was the invasion of the mountain lions. And the swarm of house mice and roof rats. And worse. In fact, so much misfortune has visited this normally laid-back city this year that some residents have taken to calling home "San Calamity."

It all started with the coyote attack 10 months ago. Since then, this seaside town has also endured a budget crisis, chaos over its vaunted 65-year-old Police Department and a resulting recall campaign against four City Council members.

Then there is the latest: One of the city's oldest and most cherished buildings just burned.

"It's been an unreal time," said Mayor Truman Benedict. "I think we're snake-bit. Things have to get better."

Residents in this once carefree coastal community of 43,000 are bracing for what comes next. A few folks wonder aloud if a biblical plague of locusts is not right around the corner.

"After all that we've been through this last year, nothing that can happen to San Clemente any time soon will shock me," resident Lynn Conlan, 44, said as she was getting her nails polished in a salon. "Well, maybe locusts--but not much more."

The list of troubles that have beset the city lately is enough to make residents shudder as they nervously point out that virtually no part of San Clemente has been immune to the travail.

Last May and June, three coyotes were captured and killed after a coyote nipped a 5-year-old girl in daylight as she played on the lawn of her parents' house in Forster Ranch at the north end of the city. There were at least six coyote sightings at the time, and numerous family pets were reported killed or missing.

The surviving coyotes finally departed weeks later, their tracks trailing off into the hills.

In July came smaller critters--house mice and roof rats. Dozens of them in some homes, hundreds scampering around in others.

Like the attack of the coyotes, the invasion of mice throughout San Clemente made national headlines.

"I have an exchange student from Denmark and before he came last year he asked if there were still mice running around," said Conlan, whose house was "full of little white mice."

"We trapped a lot of them--especially in the garage," she said. "I was so happy when we were finally rid of them; but then, before you knew it, I read about the mountain lions."

That was in September, when homeowners of an upscale community east of Interstate 5 reported spotting between 10 and 15 mountain lions roaming near their houses. A few pets were reported killed, but no humans were attacked.

For city officials, getting rid of the wild animals was less stressful and easier to accomplish than tackling the municipal problems that followed.

"It simply cannot continue the way it is," said City Manager Michael W. Parness, a 14-year government professional who called the succession of disasters "unprecedented in my experience."

In recent months, the city was tossed into new turbulence when officials voted to disband the Police Department and contract with the county Sheriff's Department in an effort to save $2 million annually.

Then, the city faced another crisis when a series of pounding winter storms caused major damage to aging streets, water lines and storm drains.

Downpours flooded streets and unleashed mudslides that destroyed five ocean-bluff homes above Coast Highway, damaged dozens of other homes and buildings, and shut down a vital link of railroad tracks.

While repair crews were working furiously to clean up the mudslide damage, the city's second-oldest structure--the 67-year-old Bartlett Building--was gutted in a fire that officials suspected was caused by a tenant smoking in bed. The downtown commercial and apartment building once housed the city's first newspaper, El Heraldo.

"In the 25 years I've lived in San Clemente, I've never seen anything like this," said Jim Lusk, 63, a volunteer who issues parking citations and checks on the homes of vacationing residents. "This is impossible to have this many things happening in a town this size."

For Councilman Scott Diehl, a resident since 1977 and president of the county chapter of the League of California Cities, this trying time is "a period of really being under the magnifying glass."

His peers in other cities have been sympathetic, but clearly not envious, the councilman said.

"They just come up and shake my hand and say: 'You don't look so bad for what you've been through,' " he said.

As if problems caused by Mother Nature were not enough, Diehl and three other council members were served with official recall notices by residents angry with their vote to abolish San Clemente's Police Department.

"The whole town is going through a phase of real bad luck. . . . It's just been one bad piece of publicity after the next," said Irv Weiner, owner of Coaches Corner bar.

Even with all of the recent headline-making problems, the people of this town are, if nothing else, resilient. They have lived through disappointments before, many said, noticeably in the 1980s when former President Richard Nixon decided to put the Nixon library in his birth city of Yorba Linda instead of his adopted hometown of San Clemente.

If they could swallow that bitter pill and rebound, residents said, getting over the recent series of setbacks will not be impossible.

Sally Jeisy, president of the Chamber of Commerce and owner of a downtown gift shop, is optimistic that things will get better.

"We've all been talking about it--sometimes things happen in a pattern like this," she said. "It can only get better."

Bonnie Wells, 56, owner of a shop near the beach, said: "I don't know what's been happening, but whatever it is, I hope it's over."

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