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Photo by Tenaya HillsCall him a King Midas in reverse, because it's pretty certain anything Paul Freeman touches is rotten.
While a Laguna Beach city councilman in the late 1990s, Freeman played a key role in getting that city's taxpayers to subsidize to the tune of $10 million the massive resort development of the old Treasure Island trailer park, all while publicly assuring residents that they wouldn't have to pay a dime. More recently, in his job as lobbyist for C.J. Segerstrom and Sons, Freeman was instrumental in getting the beloved Kona Lanes bowling alley in Costa Mesa shut down in favor of a Kohl's superstore. The Costa Mesa City Council later nixed the Kohl's plan, but too late for Kona Lanes.
Now Freeman is in the fight over the El Morro Trailer Park. Between Crystal Cove and northern Laguna Beach, the park's 294 trailers sit on state property in El Moro Canyon, on bluffs near Pacific Coast Highway and on the beach itself. Next year, the state Parks Department wants to convert the trailer park into a beach and campground accessible to all.
When the land became public in 1979, the state informed park residents their leases would be extended another 20 years in exchange for the residents' forgoing any relocation payments from taxpayers. When the deadline to vacate came in 1999, residents obtained a five-year extension from then-Governor Pete Wilson. There are no further extensions, and all of the residents have been ordered out by Dec. 31, 2004.
That is, unless Paul Freeman and the political campaign consulting firm First Strategies get their way. Paid by the trailer park residents to stop the state parks plan, Laguna Beach-based First Strategies developed its own "plan," which is just a call for "low-income housing" at El Morro coupled with a 30-year extension of the trailer park leases.
With Freeman lobbying his former colleagues on the Laguna Beach City Council to get behind the plan, First Strategies produced a series of high-quality ads that ran in Laguna Beach community newspapers and are archived on the El Morro Village Association website.
The ads mix feel-good terminology like "For the benefit of our community" and the ever popular "You can make a difference" with not-so-subtle warnings about "public safety" should the state put a campground so close to El Morro Elementary School. But mostly, the ads cynically prey on the progressive instincts of many Laguna Beach residents.
"The new plan would immediately provide Laguna Beach with 50 new, two-bedroom apartments for emergency response and public-safety personnel as well as local teachers, artists, seniors, and others the city decides should qualify," states one ad. "There would be no cost to the city."
Never mind that then-City Councilman Freeman was all for kicking Treasure Island residents out of their trailers, and publicly denounced anyone who dared say his sell-out to the resort project's developers would cost city taxpayers millions of dollars. The El Morro campaign's use of the low-income housing lure masks a plan to get state taxpayers to subsidize about 300 trailer park residents.
Freeman's plan has park supporters outraged. "Why not use the north end of Crystal Cove for low-income housing for Newport Beach?" asked Rick Wilson of the Surfrider Foundation. "Or fill up Laguna Canyon with trailers? Or Yosemite, for that matter? El Morro is not the place for low-income housing. Why do they have to put it there?"
Even small details in the First Strategies ads are misleading. Each ad includes quotes supposedly taken from completely uninvolved residents who felt so moved by the prospect of losing the trailer park that they had to speak out.
"This proposal will help provide water quality sooner rather than later," says Tom Davis, listed in one ad as a "local environmental attorney." "That it provides millions of dollars for open space locally makes it even more attractive."
In fact, Davis works for First Strategies. California Secretary of State records show Davis is the registered agent for the firm. His Laguna Beach address listed on his state Bar Association profile matches that on the First Strategies filing.
Though it has no official say in the matter, the Laguna Beach City Council will discuss the trailer park plan at its June 17 meeting.
"On its face, the plan is absurd," said Elizabeth Brown of Laguna Greenbelt, which wants El Morro converted into a publicly accessible state park. "By going to the city, the trailer-park residents are trying to get an agency to write to the state saying, 'Let's look at something else.' The trailer park plan already has legs with the people who don't think. Now they're taking advantage of the kind people who worry about the availability of affordable housing."