This year's Rossmoor Family Fun Day Picnic featured a Ferris wheel, hot dogs and bands. Parents and children tossed baseballs in Rush Park as vendors sold their wares. And a seemingly innocuous sign at a booth caused a bit of a stir: "City of Rossmoor," it said.
The annual picnic is the closest thing to a municipal event in this upscale community between Seal Beach and Los Alamitos, an unincorporated section of Orange County just over the border from Los Angeles County. If local officials and community leaders have their way, however, next year the sign could be true: Rossmoor's 10,500 residents may be asked to vote in November on whether to turn their 51-year-old neighborhood into the county's newest city.
"It's a subject of intense debate at sporting events," said Steve Petersen, who shares the skepticism of some of his neighbors that cityhood could be supported by Rossmoor's slim commercial base.
The Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission could decide as early as this week whether to put the matter on the ballot. In fact, it's an issue that's come up before.
Rossmoor was founded in 1957 by developer Ross Cortese, who also created Leisure World and coined Rossmoor's moniker from his first name and a description of its marshy land. Three times the idea of becoming an independent city or part of another has been rejected.
In the late 1960s, Seal Beach annexed the area's 59-acre business center, which is now called the Shops at Rossmoor, although it isn't in Rossmoor at all.
And a 1979 effort by Los Alamitos to annex the community's last remaining island of commercialism, at Katella Avenue and Los Alamitos Boulevard, was rejected by the county.
The future of Orange County's unincorporated areas has again been on the table since 1994 when the county experienced the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy. Strapped for cash, county officials decided to begin unburdening themselves of otherwise unspoken-for land.
"It's simple economics," said John Moorlach, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, whose district includes Rossmoor. "The county should get out of the municipality business. We should be focused on regional issues as opposed to fixing potholes."
In recent years, a number of county areas have been annexed by neighboring cities or incorporated into municipalities, including Laguna Woods, Aliso Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita. Some large unincorporated county areas remain, authorities say, and Rossmoor is among the most populous.
The community's large population, in fact, may be one of the factors making annexation unlikely. Neither Seal Beach nor Los Alamitos has shown much interest in taking Rossmoor on, probably, experts say, because of the power shift that would come with 10,500 new voters.
The idea of incorporation, however, gained momentum a few years ago after surveys of area law enforcement services revealed that Rossmoor residents, who rely on the Orange County Sheriff's Department, have to wait significantly longer for response than do their neighbors in the two closest towns.
"We share a sheriff's car with Sunset Beach," said Shawn Wilson, president of the Rossmoor Community Services District, which supplies some local services and applied last July to the county's agency formation commission for incorporation on behalf of the community. "They say it's getting better, but I don't think it's where it should be."
Wilson sees lots of advantages to incorporating. "No. 1," he said, "is that we would get to dictate our own governance. It wouldn't be dictated on the county level but on the local level."
Eric Christensen, a co-chairman of a planning committee the Rossmoor Homeowners Assn., which was set up to examine alternatives, agrees. "One thing people here really care about," he said, "is retaining and protecting their identity. The only way we can take control of our future is by becoming a city."
That prospect took on new urgency with the recent passage of a statewide vehicle license fee benefiting cities incorporated by June 30, 2009. For a future city of Rossmoor, that could translate into $8.2 million over the next 9 1/2 years. In light of the community's thin commercial base, the revenue is seen as crucial.
"We frankly couldn't make it if we didn't get that money," Christensen said.
But even with the vehicle tax, according to a recent agency formation commission study, cityhood is financially feasible only with the imposition of additional fees amounting to at least $16 per household per month. The upshot, assuming the commission follows its staff's recommendation to put the measure on the ballot, is that incorporation will be implemented only if Rossmoor voters simultaneously approve a utility tax of 7% to 9%.
Not everyone is happy with that prospect.
Jim Alexander, who has lived in Rossmoor for 25 years and has served on the boards of its services district and homeowner's association, calls incorporating under those conditions stupid.
"There are already senior citizens living here on limited incomes," he said. "People are already having difficulty paying their bills. To add to that is silly. We're well taken care of. We live in Niceville. If it's not broken, don't try to fix it."
With the area having no grocery store or post office, with homes worth $700,000 to $2.2 million and nothing but a small commercial corner containing not much more than a seafood restaurant, car wash, video store and flower shop, some are having difficulty envisioning how the city would pay for itself.
"People are putting up $2-million mansions here," said Petersen, who plans to vote against incorporation, "but the state takes the property tax. If we become a city we'll be paying more."
Moorlach, speaking at a recent town meeting on the subject, had a simple reply. "You're 50 years old and still living at home," he scolded the gathered residents. "Why don't you move out and leave your parents alone?"