OP OneWorld: No Easy Way at El Morro

Several weeks back, I waded into the morass of the El Morro beachside trailer park for an article in The New York Times newspaper. Situated between Laguna Beach and Newport Coast, El Morro, as you may know has been the subject of a great deal of attention in the press. It’s not much of a secret that on just the right south swells, El Morro is capable of producing some epic, gaping barrels. In fact, there’s a whole crew of surfers who live for this fickle, often shorebreaky spot.

Since 1982, State Parks has been planned on building a campground here. But the problem is, there’s a trailer park with nearly 300 trailers and some very stubborn residents who don’t want to leave. The trailer park dates back to the 1930’s, when vacationers with early travel trailers used El Morro’s scenic canyon and its beaches as an idyllic, rural getaway. Eventually, folks settled here with trailers full time and created El Morro Village. They paid their rent to the Irvine Company and lived a life that’s probably about as 180 degree opposite what you’d consider normal trailer park living. Residents had gorgeous canyons, a clean stream and a fish and surf-filled beach to call home. In 1979, the state of California bought nearly 3000 acres, including El Morro, from the Irvine Co. and created Crystal Cove State Park. This swath of green wildlands and blufftop beaches separates Laguna Beach from the sprawl of it all.

After talking with many people on all sides of the El Morro issue, it’s easy to see the arguments. On the one hand, you’ve got an old, established community of people here, some of whom go back four generations. Contrary to how some have tried to portray El Morro, everyone here is not rich, and for some, El Morro constitutes genuine low cost housing. I also saw no efforts by anyone here to keep me or any of the public from getting to the beach — as some of the residents’ opponents have argued, and as was apparently the case years ago. In fact, it seemed that El Morro’ers have tried to be welcoming.

On the other hand, El Morro residents signed an agreement in 1979 that if they left, in 20 years, they could stay in their trailers at below market rates until 1999. They were even granted a five year extension. Now State Parks and a great many others, including the Sierra Club, Surfrider, and local O.C. enviro groups and cities want them gone so that the public can have a campground here and more public access to the beaches and the Crystal Cove’s beautiful interior. They also want to take the trailers off the beachfront and return it to a fairly natural state, and create an amphitheater and mighty nice public park on the eastern side of the PCH — and that can’t be a bad thing.

After speaking to residents and folks in the conservation community, this is a really difficult issue to describe in a short article or a series of pat quotes, as are unfortunately what you typically read in the newspapers. So, I’m going to let the a few of the folks I interviewed speak for themselves. Then draw your own conclusions. I spoke to a great many more, but felt like the below people encapsulated a little bit of what’s really going on…

Gabe Heflin:
A 27 year old contractor, Gabe Heflin lives in a modest two bedroom trailer with his wife Kelly and three young children. Four generations of Gabe’s family live here, including his grandparents, mother and two of his six brothers and sisters. He grew up surfing and spearfishing the reefs here and El Morro is the only home he’s ever known.

On growing up and living at El Morro:

I grew up there with free roam. Even today I’d let my daughter walk to school. You go to Newport, even around a place like 16th or 17th street, people don’t know their neighbors. Here, I do. Growing up there, when I look back, I realize how fortunate I’ve been. It’s like a hidden jewel. I was really lucky, life there was as good as it gets. My oldest daughter — I went to her back to school night at El Morro, and she still has the same teachers I did.

I still don’t have much reason to leave El Morro. It’s the only place I surf, really. I guess that’s probably not such a creat thing because there are other surf spots. But El Morro is just really a unique spot. It’s gotten different recently in terms of people having to leave and move out and new, temporary people coming in, but two years ago, of the 300 owners here, I knew 250 of them and would consider 150 of them family. You can’t find that in any neighborhood anywhere else. People have known me ever since I was a kid — and when I was a kid here, I could roam and not worry. I remember telling myself that it would be my dream to be able to raise my kids here. I don’t remember living anywhere else. That’s the wierdness. If I have to leave, it’s almost — what’s the outside world like?

On El Morro residents denying access to surfers and other members of the public:

There’s a misconception a lot of people have. The management changed here five or six years ago. The people who ran the place before were much stricter in terms of access. When the new management company took over they said, look, people are making a stink about beach access, let’s make this work. So they put forth a bunch of plans for public access. We even put up a big public welcome sign, but State Parks made us take it down. What I heard was that the state was saying, you can’t welcome people in because State Parks charges $5.00 for Crystal Cove parking. So then if someone came here who was not a guest of the residents, we charged them $5.00 and tried to give it to the state, but they wouldn’t take our money. The welcome sign was taken down and is still in the maintenance yard.

You know, there’s a public parking lot (50 cars) here that is never full. And there are other places that State Parks could put campers here. There’s a bluff across the creek, or even in the flat section behind the creek.

People say, you’ve been there since 1979, it’s time to go. I get that more than anything. I’ll talk to friends or parents and they say, you guys have had it long enough. You can’t argue with people who are closed minded. I also get, well, what are you going to do if you have to leave? I say, I don’t know, I’m just going to enjoy the sunset tonight.

On sewage issues:

There’s nothing wrong with our septic system now and I’ve never seen the sewers overflowing to the ocean. We probably eat three times a week with fish I bring out of El Morro. Halibut, lobster, white sea bass. This guy from Surfrider was going on about how dirty the water is at El Morro. I spend half my life diving out there and I know the water from Abalone Point on up. You blame it on El Morro, but they’re dumping dredge 3 miles offshore and what about all the construction at Newport Coast? Muddy Creek up there — black soot comes down out of it.

We asked State Parks, what can we do about our septic system? We’ll hook our trailers up to the sewage system though — the main line is only 200 yards away. What do you want us to do because we want to solve your issues. We said, we’ll pay for the hookup, and set aside enough money. They said, no, you can’t dig on state property.

On their below market rate rents:

El Morro makes a lot of money for the state, (around $1.1 million paid in rent per year) and we’re willing to pay more to stay here. Why dont’ they put some of our money into the Crystal Cove restoration? I’ve done public works projects. If you go down to Crystal Cove, and look at the houses there — they’re tweaked not even close to being liveable. I don’t know how bad the state’s budget is, but if the there is a bad budget, why would they kill a cash cow like this? Of course, the state doesn’t work like a business, so I can’t answer that.

The thing I’m faced with is, alright, I’ve got three kids and my wife doesn’t work. I don’t want her to have to work if I can work full time and support the family. I’m self-employed and if I have to relocate, I can’t afford a house in Laguna. What am I going to do, move to Corona? There are others like me here too. There’s a sheriff’s deputy, a fulltime firefigher, two volunteer firefighters for Emerald Bay, a social worker and a UCI professor. Gloria Monroe, she’s in her 80’s and I grew up two doors up from here. She’s about to have a heart attack because she doesn’t know where to go or what to do.

We feel like we’re under siege here and it’s all gotten really wierd. I’ve been really fortunate to live here, don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful. It’s to the point now, I’m over it. I can’t worry anymore. I’ve worried myself sick. As it is, every night is just another sunset I’m thankful for…

Rick Wilson, Coastal Management Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation.

On Surfrider’s support of State Parks in the issue:

We’ve taken some heat for it. Primarily from people who live in El Morro or know people who do. Because they like to surf there without any people around. But the basic issue is, there shouldn’t be private residences in a state park. What if there was a proposition to put trailers on the beach at San Onofre? What if, El Morro instead was as state parks wants it – with nothing on that beach? What if there was a proposition to put in 300 people and restrict access at San Onofre? People would go nuts.

Sierra Club, Friends of Newport Coast, the Alliance for Crystal Cove, they all support State Parks plan. The people who live three have basically had 25 years notice and they’re still fighting. On the one hand they’ve cried poor. Then they’ve hired lawyers and filed endless lawsuits.

On assemblyman Chuck Devore’s bills that would have extended El Morro leases and put rents towards either the State or State Parks’ budget deficits. Mr. Devore withdrew the measures before they could go to the assembly floor:

He says the state is in big trouble financially and that state parks are falling apart, so why are we adding something else — another park? My response is, well then, why don’t we fill up Yosemite Valley with rental trailers, then we could make a ton of money? Devore’s campaign manager is the guy who holds the leases to the trailers.

On the potential popularity of El Morro as park and campground:

Anyone who’s tried to get a camping reservation at a state coastal campground in southern California knows that these things are going to be snapped up as soon as they’re available. It’s going to be hugely popular. And I think clearly there is going to be a lot of money made from that. There are a lot of surfers who would like to surf there but don’t because they don’t live there or know someone who does and it’s too much of a hassle. This is supposed to be the people’s land.

On returning the beach to a natural state:

You know, one of Surfrider’s big issues is seawalls. In effect there’s a seawall at El Morro now. You’ve got 75 trailers down there on the beach, and a tremendous amount of what I’m sure is illegal fortification — wood and concrete bulkheads. Over time, we know the ocean’s going to advance more, and we know those trailers are going to be in danger and there will be more and more inclination to protect them. Soon it will be like the rip rap in front of the trailers at Capo Beach.

On sympathy for the residents:

Look, if I lived there, I’d proably be fighting to stay there too. They have a sweet deal. It’s inexpensive and your own slice of paradise. But it’s a State Park and they signed a deal in 1979. Basically now, everyone has gotten an eviction notice and is just thumbing their nose at the law. Some are declaring bankruptcy to get out of legal responsibilities for their trailers and it’s just a horrible mess. We’ve even got Richard Wolcott, the CEO of Volcom who lives there. We got an email from him on this when we first took a stand saying look, I’ve always supported Surfrider, but I can’t agree with you on this. We said, ‘sorry, but this is stand we’ve got to take’.