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Rancho Ortega Blog discusses matters of public interest in South Orange County, including the communities of San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

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Cityhood or Annexation: A South County Tug of War Begins

In a way, we blame the Ladera Ranch Civic Council for starting this.  They started talking about Rancho Mission Viejo/Ladera Ranch cityhood before the first resident had moved into Sendero.  The Ladera Civic Council had a roadmap for cityhood and began pursuing it.  Don’t get us wrong — cityhood is an important issue.  We’ve been discussing it, too.  But, it seemed premature to begin taking formal steps towards cityhood at this time.  Nevertheless, representatives from the Civic Council went to LAFCO to start discussions about “local governance” and now LAFCO is holding those discussions.  (We introduced you to LAFCO in this article.)  The problem is, not everyone is of the same mind as the Ladera Ranch Civic Council.  Some of those people are entering the discussion and expressing a different vision for the future of unincorporated South Orange County — annexation.

Cityhood contemplates the creation of Orange County’s 35th, and possibly last, city.  We first wrote about this almost two years ago here.  Annexation contemplates another existing city incorporating all or a portion of the unincorporated area into its city boundaries.  San Juan Capistrano annexed the land it purchased from Rancho Mission Viejo a few years ago.  Mission Viejo has annexed some land recently.  We mentioned it here.  But annexing an area as large as Rancho Mission Viejo is a major decision for both the annexing city and the residents of the area being annexed.  Probably the best local example is San Clemente’s annexation of Talega.  If unincorporated South County was to be annexed, it would likely be by Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente or Rancho Santa Margarita.  We might even envision a scenario where each of those cities annexed a portion of the unincorporated areas: Las Flores, Coto de Caza, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

None of this is hypothetical or far-fetched.  In fact, as we pointed out in our article about LAFCO, “In 2010 the unincorporated communities of Coto De Caza and Las Flores were placed in the sphere of influence (SOI) of the City of Rancho Santa Margarita after a facilitated process with the County, the City, LAFCO and the communities to study governance options.”  Being placed in a city’s sphere of influence is a potential precursor to annexation.  Mission Viejo is also a possible annexation partner for Las Flores, and there were once talks between Mission Viejo and Rancho Mission Viejo Company about the annexation of Ladera Ranch by Mission Viejo.  To this day, some real property records in Ladera Ranch show a Mission Viejo address.  As for Sendero (and potentially the remainder of the Ranch Plan), San Juan Capistrano seems the city most likely to annex.  There is a weaker argument in favor of San Juan annexing Ladera Ranch, too.  Just how likely is that, though?  San Juan is proud of its rural, small town personality and has been largely skeptical of its neighbors to the east.  It already suffers a split personality due to the 5 freeway bisection, could it take on a third municipal personality?  We had no idea if San Juan Capistrano wanted anything to do with the master planned communities on its eastern border.  Until now.  From the Patch:

San Juan Capistrano leaders said Tuesday night they want a place at the table if there is to be any talks about annexing Rancho Mission Viejo, or at least a portion of it, to the city.

“We’ve annexed the riding park. We’ve taken that one corner. It seems to me as at a minimum, we would want all four corners,” said Councilman Larry Kramer.

While Councilman Roy Byrnes said he doesn’t know what shape – or any – an annexation may take, he agreed the city needs to monitor the situation, which may take years to unfold.

The agency that oversees the formation of cities in the county, the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, will meet this month to take a closer look at all the unincorporated areas of South OC – including Rancho Mission Viejo, Ladera Ranch, Wagon Wheel and Coto de Caza – and the best possible future for them.

Our suspicion is that San Juan wasn’t thinking about annexation, and probably doesn’t want to, but the Civic Council’s meeting with LAFCO, and LAFCO’s subsequent discussions forced them to act.  They are nervous about a big new city on its eastern border and understand the importance of the intersection at Antonio Parkway and Ortega Highway (as do we).  As a result, they are going to demand a seat at LAFCO’s table to discuss local governance options, including partial annexation of those key areas — and frankly, as one of the cities most impacted by the Ranch Plan, they have a right to that seat.  LAFCO’s only “South County” representative is from Lake Forest.  We need elected officials from Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano, Rancho Santa Margarita and Ladera Ranch (as well as representatives from Rancho Mission Viejo Company) to be a part of these decisions.

This is why we are calling out the Ladera Ranch Civic Council.  We mean no disrespect, and we appreciate the hard work these volunteers are doing to improve the lives of Ladera Ranch residents.  But the Civic Council is not a government agency, it has no authority, and its directors are not elected officials.  That’s a tough place to negotiate from.  What’s more, the community of Ladera Ranch does not come to the LAFCO discussions with any leverage.  Ladera Ranch lacks the economic clout and political sophistication that the Rancho Mission Viejo Company has.  Ladera has minimal tax revenue, which means it’s not going to be a desirable asset in annexation negotiations and it doesn’t have the financial ability to incorporate on its own.  Frankly, a community likes Ladera needs to either incorporate or be annexed.  The worst possible outcome is for Ladera to remain an unincorporated island, a ward of the County.  LAFCO wouldn’t let that happen, but yet, Ladera Ranch risks being underrepresented in these important governance discussions.

Our fear is by accelerating discussions about local governance, Ladera Ranch risks being left without effective representation at LAFCO, and that might result in an outcome that is good for San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita and Rancho Mission Viejo Company — but perhaps not necessarily good for Ladera.  The same goes for Las Flores and Coto, but to our knowledge, neither of them have residents pushing for cityhood at the moment.

Fortunately, we have time on our side.  No one should be acting quickly on the question of cityhood or annexation.  Even LAFCO acknowledges that this is all in the early stages:

LAFCO Executive Officer Carolyn Emery said it is far too early to even come up with different options. Her staff’s first task is to crunch the numbers, determining how much revenue the unincorporated areas generate versus the costs to provide them services.

We apologize for picking on the Civic Council.  We try to be positive here at the Rancho Ortega Blog.  There are so many good things happening in this area that we’d like to talk about, and we recognize the time and expertise being generously contributed by the members of the Civic Council.  But cityhood is a critical issue, and we feel strongly that the Civic Council jumped the gun.  Maybe we are wrong.  Hopefully, at the end of the day it all works out in everyone’s best interests.

In any event, here’s what we propose for now:

  • LAFCO should drive the process in a public and transparent manner, including setting the timeline for discussions and decisions (as opposed to local city councils and ad hoc community organizations).
  • The Orange County Board of Supervisors should create and appoint a South Orange County local governance committee made up of representatives from the affected areas: Rancho Mission Viejo, Ladera Ranch, Las Flores and Coto de Caza.  The charter for this committee might be complex, in that together committee members will represent a unified voice for unincorporated South Orange County but as individuals, they will represent their unique communities whose views and interests may differ.  As such, the committee would serve as both an advocate at large and an internal forum for negotiations.
  • The South County local governance committee needs to be empowered to speak with equal authority as the local city governments of San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita.  Representatives from affected South County cities and from the South County governance committee (including at least one individual representative from each unincorporated community) should be included in LAFCO meetings and negotiations about governance options.

Personally, we have our opinion about future governance and we will share those with our readers in the not to distant future.  Regardless of what happens next, we’ll keep you informed about it here.  Thank you for reading.

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