In one of the few rustic corners remaining in coastal Orange County, Calif., a tiny trailer park has become the focal point of a battle between residents and the park’s landlord – the California State Parks system.
According to a report in the New York Times, the state is ready to proceed on a stalled plan to construct a campground and day-use facilities at the 27-acre site. Claiming the campground will grant greater public access to the beach, officials have started eviction proceedings against the residents of the trailer park, El Morro Village.
But with a slice of paradise on the line, most residents have chosen to fight.
“They’re pulling this old bandwagon that’s long dead and not true,” said Tim Williams, 36, who has lived at El Morro for nearly four years with his wife, Dalila, and their son, Sebastian, 5. “Saying people are denied access – that’s a lie.”
Williams said the only time access was controlled was during high season at the beachfront, when crowds get large. “But at any time, anyone can walk down and enjoy that beach,” he said.
To many, though – including the Sierra Club and the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation – the residents of this 80-year-old, 295-unit trailer park, part of Crystal Cove State Park, have been given a fair deal for years, and have little left to complain about.
In 1979, El Morro residents were granted a 20-year lease when the state bought the trailer park as part of a nearly 3,000-acre, $32 million deal with the Irvine Company, a real estate investment company in Orange County and the park’s previous landlord. Today, the park’s 3.2-mile stretch of ocean bluffs and broad foothills separate the private sands of Irvine Cove in Laguna Beach – a neighborhood where the billionaire Warren E. Buffett owns a home – from the graded hillsides and million-dollar tract houses of Newport Coast to the north.
A general plan adopted in 1982 called for the removal of the beachfront, canyon-side and bluff-top trailers; the restoration of habitat; and the creation of a 60-site campground and a 200-space parking lot. In 1999, as the El Morro lease was set to expire, California State Parks granted residents a five-year extension until Dec. 31, 2004.
Roy Stearns, a deputy director of California State Parks, said residents had been paying below-market rent and had known all along that their time would be up.
“You think about that little piece of paradise,” Stearns said, “and you might not want to leave, either. But I want to be clear: this is a public park.”
He added that while El Morro residents pay in total about $1.2 million a year to the state in rent, projections for revenue to be gained from the thousands of likely campground and day users nearly match that.
Many residents concede that they have had a good deal, but they also say they would be glad to pay more than their current monthly rent of $470 to $1,100 to hold on to an affordable seaside way of life.
“We’ve been through lease extensions and all kinds of pressure,” said James Woolcott, 39, who rented a bluff-top trailer 10 years ago. “It’s a game they’re playing with us. But the people that are still there are very hopeful. They’re fighters and they’re not going to give up.”