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Park’s Fate Entangled by Family Enmity

Newport Beach resident Paul Esslinger again turned to the courts this week to try to block the conversion of a Laguna Beach mobile home park developed by his father to resident ownership.

“We can’t understand why people around us have so much trouble with us,” said Boyce Belt, president of the park’s tenant association.

On July 20, Laguna Beach’s City Council approved subdividing the 20-acre ocean-view park, which would allow the 157 lots to be sold for the first time to tenants.

In a legal notice this week that is likely to further any lot sales, attorneys for Paul Esslinger say they intend to file suit against the city and Laguna Terrace Mobile Home Park, challenging the city’s subdivision approval and seeking a restraining order on the project until a court rules on the matter.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act statute, a legal challenge must be filed  within 90 days and such a notice satisfies the requirement, said City Attorney Phil Kohn, who offered no comment about the merit of the expected suit.

Park tenants are in no hurry to line financing to buy their lots since the subdivision plan already is tied up in court for another reason, and Paul Esslinger figures in that dispute as well.

In August, Laguna Terrace Park filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against the California Coastal Commission, asking the court to determine if the commission can legally exert jurisdiction over the park’s conversion to resident ownership. A hearing is set for Dec. 13 before Judge Ron Bauer.

The commission asserted its jurisdiction in the matter, petitioned by local environmental activist Penny Elia and Paul Esslinger.

It’s unclear why Paul Esslinger remains in the fight. His three-year lawsuit against his son alleging fraud and elder abuse in a battle over the park’s ownership ended in 2007, apparently leaving Stephen Esslinger in control of the park. Terms of the settlement were never disclosed.

Stephen Esslinger, who lives in San Juan Capistrano, proposed subdividing the park years ago. “We want it worse than he does,” said Belt, of the tenant group.

Meanwhile, the park’s lawyers expect Judge Bauer to clear the path since ruled against the commission in a similar dispute involving development of St. Catherine’s school, said James Lawson, the park’s manager.

Lawson characterized Paul Esslinger’s most recent legal action as a further impediment if the commission loses jurisdiction. “That’s what it looks like,” he said. “It’s an expensive form of harassment.”

Paul Esslinger’s attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment and he could not be reached directly for comment. Stephen Esslinger’s attorney also declined to comment.

Despite the legal uncertainties, people continue to buy homes in the park because it’s a desirable location, said Lawson, who described a recent $384,000 deal, the highest priced home-sale in the park. Tenants must also agree to long-term leases and space rents of $3,000 to $4,000 a month.

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