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Mission Viejo’s Decade of Independence

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a Saturday morning in 1986, a group of residents gathered in a South County coffee shop, plotting insurrection.

They were fed up with Orange County government, tired of having land-use decisions dictated to them, sick of driving 25 miles to the county seat in Santa Ana only to be, they felt, ignored. Their solution was radical for the time: cityhood.

As Mission Viejo celebrates its 10th year of incorporation today, the experiment with independence seems to be working.

After Mission Viejo became the first Orange County community to gain cityhood in 16 years, the incorporation floodgates opened wide. Four more South County communities voted to become cities during the next three years, giving them a greater voice in critical regional issues such as the proposed international airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

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“Once Mission Viejo succeeded in becoming a city, it was like a wake-up call for the rest of us,” said Judy Curreri, Dana Point’s first mayor and a key figure in that community’s incorporation drive. “It had a ripple effect that has really changed the way things are done around here in south Orange County.”

The county’s then-chief executive officer, Ernie Schneider, believes the county did a good job of serving Mission Viejo before its incorporation. But he says that incorporation was the right move.

“It was good that Mission Viejo became a city,” he said. “Local control is a good thing.”

At the beginning, Mission Viejo had the loudest, most contentious City Council and boisterous group of gadflies in South County. It wasn’t unusual for council members to insult each other publicly, or for meetings to last until 3 a.m.

In 1990, the Mission Viejo Co., the developer that built this planned community, helped raise $500,000 to recall slow-growth Councilman Robert Curtis--an unheard of sum for a local city recall. Residents handily rejected the recall effort.

City Hall opponents were numerous and organized, flattening a proposal to build a civic center after city officials had already spent $1 million drawing up plans. Through the years, local gadflies persistently opposed the city on spending issues.

Despite scathing criticism from some residents, the city spent more than $3 million to build a soccer training center for the U.S. World Cup team in 1994. An additional $2 million went toward the construction of no-kill animal shelter, drawing jibes from some residents who called it “the Taj Mahal of animal shelters.”

Now it is quiet in Mission Viejo, which has grown to a population of 92,000 from the 69,000 who lived here on incorporation day. New candidates were elected to the council in 1996 and the squabbling has stopped.

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Few voices were raised against a $6.5-million library or a proposed $6-million baseball stadium.

“I think it’s a sign that we’re growing up,” said Mayor Susan Withrow, who was elected to the council in 1990. “I think we’ve learned from the past experiences and the growing pains. We’ve been around the block a few times.”

Longtime local activist Milt Jacobson just shakes his head and wonders where the activists have gone.

“I don’t know why people don’t want to come out,” he said. “Are [activists] dying out? Are people satisfied with what’s going on? I don’t know.”

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Mission Viejo officials were never shy about committing to high-profile, multimillion-dollar projects to attract attention to the city.

But officials also helped engineer the development of a regional shopping mall, the Mission Viejo Freeway Center, which brings in more than $1 million a year in sales tax revenue. Next month, the council is expected to approve investing $18 million to $25 million in redevelopment funds to help support a massive expansion of the Mission Viejo Mall that will include a Nordstrom Department Store. And somehow, the city has managed to hang onto about $12 million in cash reserves.

As Mission Viejo heads toward build-out, or the end of its development plan, it will soon say goodbye to the Mission Viejo Co., which at one time owned the community’s entire 10,000 acres.

The relationship between the two has been rocky, particularly in the first years of cityhood.

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Mission Viejo officials in the new city were angered that the county passed a development agreement with the Mission Viejo Co. shortly before incorporation, instead of waiting to map out development with them.

Most local politicians point to the attempted recall of Curtis as the turning point in the relationship.

“I think that was the real political birthday for the city,” Curtis said. "[The company] no longer had a free rein to call all the shots in town, and [Mission Viejo] asserted its independence.”

John Franklin, a senior vice president of the Mission Viejo Co. for the past 18 years, called the recall campaign “a bump in the road” in the relationship between city and company.

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If nothing, the recall campaign “showed that we were serious in keeping the integrity of the development plan we established,” Franklin said. “We’re quite proud of the Mission Viejo prior to being a city and the way it has evolved and completed itself.”

In the years following the 1990 recall election, the company has existed relatively peacefully with the city.

“They had a financial investment that they needed to look out for,” said Councilman William Craycraft, who chaired the city incorporation group and has been on the council since the city’s inception. “In retrospect, I think it’s worked out well for everyone.”

In August, the Mission Viejo Co. was sold to Shea Homes. The company that built more than 30,000 homes in the city only has about 1,500 left to build.

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But the company’s influence will remain. At its last meeting, the City Council adopted an old company sales slogan as the city motto: “The California Promise.”

“In my judgment, it’s been a popular mantra to holler out ‘local control’ as reason for incorporating,” Craycraft said. “I think there’s more to it than that.

“It was just our time to grow up,” he said. “And I think we’ve done that.”


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