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Little Burg Struggles to Remain Just That

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Foothill Ranch is the girl everyone wants to take to the dance.

Lake Forest would love to annex it. Portola Hills wants to form a city with it.

But residents of this affluent community of 10,000 have their own ideas.

“We don’t want to be part of an advisory group; we don’t want to inherit another city’s problems,” said Helen Ward, a member of Cityhood Now, the Foothill Ranch incorporation committee. “We’re building a new community.”

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Located below the Saddleback Mountains, Foothill Ranch is a master-planned community filled with people who came seeking escape from urban pressures. Many homes overlook large stretches of open terrain that is home to wildlife.

Residents want to keep their rural atmosphere and look at incorporation as a way of making sure that the big-city environment doesn’t catch up to them.

“I think a majority of people who live here would tell you that,” said Sharon Hankins, a vice president of the Foothill Homeowners Assn., which oversees Cityhood Now. “We’re in the foothills up here, and a smaller, manageable city is something we can live with easier.”

Foothill Ranch wants to join with neighboring Portola Hills to create a modest city of about 20,000 when the communities are fully developed.

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Debra Brown, a longtime Portola Hills activist, said the community conducted a poll last year that showed overwhelming support for incorporating with Foothill Ranch.

“Our homes are all about the same age and we all want to share our rural atmosphere,” said Brown, an eight-year resident. “We belong together.”

Since January, Cityhood Now has collected $5,000 of the approximately $50,000 needed to conduct a financial study required by the Local Agency Formation Commission, a county governmental body that oversees annexations and incorporations.

The study is justification for a prospective city’s existence. It answers the question: Does this area have the right mix of businesses and homes to produce enough tax revenue to pay for police, parks, streets and other services?

But even if the answer is yes, Foothill Ranch may not become the city that Cityhood Now envisions.

For years, Lake Forest has coveted Foothill Ranch and its 1.2-million-square-foot Foothill Ranch Towne Centre, a “power mall” that brings in $2 million in annual sales tax revenue, according to a preliminary study by Cityhood Now.

In 1994, the smaller community conducted a poll of its residents and found that they wanted no part of Lake Forest.

And last month, Lake Forest stoked the fires of controversy between the communities, paying for a telephone poll that surveyed Foothill Ranch and Portola Hills residents about annexation-related issues.

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Some residents were outraged.

“I found it insulting. It flies in the face of what we’re trying to do,” Ward said. “On one hand, they tell us that they respect the views of the community, yet their actions speak differently.”

The survey of 258 Foothill Ranch and Portola Hills residents indicated that a tiny majority would rather incorporate than be annexed.

“This narrowness of support for both incorporation and annexation fails most conventional tests of consensus. . . . These divisions among local voters indicated that the residents of Foothill Ranch and Portola Hills are not prepared to determine an option for governance at this time,” the survey concluded.

Hankins questioned the accuracy of the survey: “Lake Forest is going for annexation, and they’re looking for support any way they can get it.

“I still feel there is an overwhelming consensus for incorporation. We will prove this in the months to come.”

One of the main reasons cited by Foothill Ranch residents who oppose annexation is that their taxes “would roll downhill to take care of Lake Forest’s blighted areas,” Ward said. “We don’t want any part of that.”

Lake Forest City Manager Robert C. Dunek said the city wanted to conduct its own poll to find out if the silent majority outnumbered the vocal opposition.

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“It’s unfortunate that they personally feel that way,” Dunek said. “We were trying to understand how people feel and gather as much information as possible. . . . This is too important an issue to guess about.”

Lake Forest could annex Foothill Ranch, even if residents don’t want them to, said officials from the incorporation commission.

If the city submits an annexation application, it would be weighed with Foothill Ranch’s application, said commission Chairman John Withers.

“It is our statutory duty to consider every application,” Withers said. “Ultimately, we do what is in the best interest of the whole area.”

Although strong community opposition makes annexation “more difficult,” he said, “legally, it can be done.”

It is common for small pockets of unattached neighborhoods to be absorbed against their will into a nearby city, but annexing a city-sized community over the objections of its residents would be “unusual,” Withers said.

Even if Lake Forest never attempts an annexation, Foothill Ranch may have to include an extra neighboring community or two to win approval to incorporate.

Last year’s failure of a drive to merge the whole foothill area into a “supercity” meant an uncertain future for eight bedroom communities, including Coto de Caza, Robinson Ranch and Dove Canyon.

With Foothill Ranch and Rancho Santa Margarita making their own plans, officials say the remaining eight communities couldn’t come close to generating enough tax revenue to support themselves.

It is a situation that the incorporation commission has not overlooked.

The commission won’t tell Foothill Ranch to include other populations in their application, Withers said. But if their financial studies show that Foothill Ranch and Rancho Santa Margarita could support other communities, the commission could push for a regional approach, he said.

Once the application is filed, “there could be significant changes,” he said.

Foothill Ranch might be spared from adding communities. The community of Arroyo Trabuco sits between it and the rest of the foothills, and residents there say they don’t want to be part of a city, Hankins said.

“We’ve been told that they wouldn’t skip over” Arroyo Trabuco to add a community that doesn’t share a border with Foothill Ranch, Hankins said.

In any case, “We aren’t saying no to anyone,” she said. “We’re not closing our doors as long as it is financially viable for us.”

Two weeks ago, about 300 Foothill Ranch residents attended a town hall meeting to talk about incorporation and other issues.

“We have a chance to choose our own form of governance,” Ward said. “It’s an exciting time.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Incorporation or Annexation?

Another South County city in the making, Foothill Ranch, is coveted by nearby Lake Forest. Foothill Ranchers, though, would rather make their own way. A quick look at Foothill Ranch:

Size: 2,743 acres

Parks/open space: 1,400 acres

Retail space: 252 acres, including 1.3-million-square-foot Foothill Ranch Towne Centre. Expects to expand another 60 acres

Commercial space: 370 acres

Residential mix:

Single-family homes: 61%

Condominiums: 17%

Apartments: 22%

Source: Foothill Ranch Company

Researched by FRANK MESSINA / For The Times


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