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San Clemente’s Civil Wars

The quaint city of San Clemente was faced with a dilemma when I first reported on events there in the early 1980s: Could residents who liked the status quo carry enough weight to slow down zealous developers?

Here it is almost two decades later, and that quandary hasn’t changed. Development is still the city’s big issue. But what has changed is the character of the citizen opposition. These people have gotten themselves organized.

Right now in San Clemente there are three citizens groups fighting the city on three development fronts. They aren’t just the same people either.

And all three appear to have enough clout that if they lose at the City Council level, they’ll be able to carry their fight to the ballot box.

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“We’re not against growth, but we don’t want San Clemente to look like just another city,” said Wayne Eggleston, director of the private Heritage of San Clemente & Visitor Center. “We have a unique look. And we need to keep it if we’re going to continue to attract tourists.”

I’m not against growth either. But I’ve always found that with developers, you have to scale back their original plans about 20%--eliminate the greed factor--before any serious discussions can take place. Sometimes it takes citizen pressure to get city officials to do that.

Here’s a look at the three brouhahas going on in San Clemente:

* Casa Romantica. The City Council is set to vote Wednesday night to turn San Clemente founder Ole Hanson’s home into a private restaurant, with some cultural and historical exhibits thrown in. An alternative proposal by Eggleston’s group, to make it primarily a cultural center, will be rejected on the grounds it won’t bring in enough profit to the city.

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The restaurant idea I find abominable, and I’ve said so in a previous column. The developer’s plan calls for alterations to the grand old oceanfront property. Once you tamper with a historical site, it will never be the same.

Council members see the restaurant proposal as some kind of great private-public compromise that will be a moneymaker for both. They’d better hope this one doesn’t wind up requiring voter approval.

* Marblehead Coastal. At 250 acres, it’s the last large undeveloped ocean view site in the city. The developer, the Lusk Co., wanted to put 434 homes there along with a shopping complex that would have included a Target, an Albertsons supermarket, and a Long’s drugstore.

The planning commission handily gave it the OK. You get the feeling that if Lusk had asked for a thousand homes, the city planners would have said fine.

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But the City Council, armed with an economic report and facing huge community opposition, has eliminated Target, Albertsons and Long’s from the plan. So now the developer is regrouping to see what else it can come up with. This issue comes back Aug. 5.

Whatever commercial development Lusk proposes, there’s an organized group of residents ready to fight it. San Clemente Citizens for Responsible Development already has 150 volunteers signed up to gather petition signatures for a ballot measure, if necessary. It has raised enough to hire its own lawyer and economic consultant.

“What we want is for the city to stick with its general plan, which calls for a resort hotel on that property,” said Gene Habich, one of the citizens group organizers. “This city does not have a single resort hotel, and that property would be ideal for it.”

The Lusk people say a resort hotel isn’t feasible for that site, and so far it has the City Council majority agreeing. However, Councilman Joseph Anderson said Lusk may have to be willing to settle for a business-conference type hotel.

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But the other major fight will be over the part of the plan that includes 434 homes. The citizens group wants 300 homes maximum.

“Otherwise,” said Habich, “you’ve got just another tract development, and on oceanfront property. I don’t think we want that for our city.”

* The beach trail. This one may have the angriest opposition of all.

The city is looking into creating a 12-foot-wide concrete boardwalk along its entire 2.3 miles of beach, for bicyclers, skateboarders or just those who want to stroll along the ocean without sand shooting up between their toes.

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At first glance, it doesn’t seem a bad idea. But lots of residents are hopping mad over it. You can find “Derail the Trail” signs all over the city. At a fund-raiser this week, the citizens group of that name raised $5,000 to help offset costs for mailers to residents and a possible ballot petition drive.

First, the residents don’t want to see the natural beauty of the city’s beach spoiled by concrete. But also, the huge issue bothering them is a fence that will have to go with it. San Clemente, if you haven’t been there, has a railroad line running right along its beach, just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge in some places. For insurance purposes, the boardwalk would have to be accompanied by a low fence, to separate it from the railroad tracks.

Councilman Anderson doesn’t quite understand the fuss. There will be plenty of beach access, he says.

The complaining citizens say no: The plan calls for just three gated entrances between the north side and the city’s pier. That would eliminate numerous trails and access points that exist now. The city counters that those trails are illegal.

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Cathy Cather, one of the organizers of Derail the Trail, said some have joined the group who have never before been involved in city issues.

“Our sand is precious to us,” she said. “You mess with our sand, and you’re going to hear from us.”

Dave Lund, the city’s economic development director, insists that the boardwalk would provide easier beach access. Some people right now get there by walking along the railroad tracks, which is extremely dangerous.

But Lund added that because of Derail the Trail, the city staff has been instructed to work with complaining citizens in attempt to come up with a plan satisfactory to everyone.

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Whatever side you might take on these three controversies, to me it’s heartening to see a town the size of San Clemente have so many citizens willing to fight for causes they believe in.

“It makes for long council meetings,” said Anderson. “But you can’t say we don’t have community spirit here.”

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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