The Caterpillar front-loader sits parked in the dirt, empty, next to small mountains of untouched crushed asphalt. Across Pacific Coast Highway at the edge of Laguna Beach, glassy green-blue waves slide onto the sand next to a chain-link fence and orange plastic webbing. Work has stopped on the long-planned transformation of the former El Morro Village mobile home neighborhood into a beachfront state park with priceless ocean views. Like thousands of other state-funded projects, workers were called off the job and plans frozen as the governor and Legislature struggle to resolve the budget mess.
And just like that, creation of the El Moro campground, the first such coastal spot in Southern California in decades, has ground to a halt.
Nearly three years after the dramatic and painful eviction of the residents of El Morro Village’s 295 eclectic trailers, the prime seaside canyon remains fenced and vacant, except for the occasional beachcomber. The dirt patches hugging a glittering stretch of coast are one of the more obvious signs of a state in budget paralysis.
“It looks like a bombed-out Beirut,” said Dave Crowell, 49, a teacher from Dana Point who spent much of his life growing up at his family’s El Morro trailer. “When I drive north I look toward the ocean; I do not look inland and do not see what devastation has been created with this conversion. It’s just heart- wrenching.”
State parks officials expressed exasperation of their own: Work to create 60 campsites plus trails, a lifeguard station, picnic areas, parking lots and restrooms is nearly half-done, ahead of schedule. But without the remaining $10.5 million in voter-approved bond money, the contractors had to pack up and go.
Before being forced to quit, crews had demolished remnants of trailer foundations, graded roads, poured cement curbs, laid down plumbing and electrical lines, and removed many non-native plants, said Ken Kramer, state parks district superintendent for the Orange Coast district, which covers Orange County. Buildings are not yet constructed and natural vegetation remains unplanted.
“It is frustrating because all the cleanup is just about done,” said Elisabeth Brown, president of Laguna Greenbelt, an advocacy organization that helped push for the trailer park conversion. “Now we’re ready for the good stuff.”
El Moro was originally scheduled to open in early 2010; that date is now uncertain.
“This is such an unusual circumstance; we’re really in uncharted waters here,” Kramer said of the funding freeze. “We’re sort of figuring this out as we go.”
Parks officials expect El Moro campground -- spelled with just one “r” -- to be one of the most popular in the state, generating an estimated $1 million in revenue each year.
The 35 acres of open space on Southern California’s cluttered coastline is “one of the last, if not the last, campground that state parks is going to put in south of Morro Bay,” said Eric Dymmel, state parks peace officer and lifeguard, as he showed where picnic tables and paths would go.
The state bought the land from Irvine Co. in 1979 for $32.5 million; tenants in the trailer park rented the property from the state for 25 years, bringing in more than $1 million in rent each year, Kramer said. They eventually fought in the courts to stay longer.
“The state of California could have used that revenue and instead said no,” said Cheryl Russell, 59, a writer from Laguna Woods who lived in El Morro Village. “It seemed rather flamboyant and reckless, in my opinion, to have made that kind of decision.”
Now, all that’s left of the village is a couple of rusty signs (“Not a Thru Street”) and views clear to Catalina.
The park conversion is one of 1,200 state parks projects worth a combined $525 million that have been put on indefinite hold, according to a department spokesman.
Across California, plans for bike trails, youth centers, sports parks, habitat restoration, tree planting and scores of other improvement efforts have been suspended. The stoppage is likely to cost at least some of the grant recipients, which include cities, counties and nonprofit groups, extra money to cover the added expense of starting and stopping work.
A new youth center in Los Angeles could fall through because state funding has dried up, park officials said, and Trinity County might face bankruptcy without state reimbursement.
Delays like the one at El Moro, said Fern Pirkle, president of Friends of Newport Coast, are “just really, really sad for the people of California.”