Laguna Terrace Owner Stephen Esslinger Dies
Esslinger was also well known in San Juan Capistrano, where he lived with his family and where he co-founded Saddleback Valley Christian School in 1997.
“Mr. Esslinger was generous, creative, brilliant and fun. He will be missed, and he is irreplaceable,” said the school’s principal, Mike Henjum, who was audibly choked up. “He was a special, special guy.”
Longtime friend James Lawson, who manages the park, provided a similar assessment. “He was my good friend of 33 years, and I will miss him dearly,” said Lawson, who ran track with Esslinger in high school. He recalled a number of milestones in his friend’s life, including Esslinger’s excitement at turning 18 on Nov. 4, 1980, in time to allow the high school senior to vote in the presidential election.
Esslinger attended UC Berkeley. There, he joined the crew team, which in his senior year broke records and propelled him to the all-PAC 10 team.
Esslinger married his high school sweetheart, Amy Johnson, who attended USC, where she ran track. The couple had two daughters, Karen and Grace, who followed in their mother’s footsteps, literally, and also became track athletes. Esslinger was listed as an assistant coach this season for girls track and field at Dana Hills High School.
Twenty years ago Esslinger’s doctors gave him six months to live, said Lawson, “and that guy squeezed more life out of 20 years than most of us do in a lifetime,” including traveling by boat to the Panama Canal.
The Esslinger family remains well known in Laguna because of its long control over the ocean-view park and its litigious nature, including a 2007 lawsuit between son and father, resolved with Stephen in control.
Multiple lawsuits followed Esslinger’s 2010 pursuit to subdivide the 157-space park to allow tenants to own their land. Last December, in filing suit against the Coastal Commission over the matter, Esslinger said his health problems were prompting him to sell to residents, allowing him to liquidate the asset for his family.
As yet, it’s unclear how Esslinger’s death will affect the park’s ownership, said two-year resident Sandi Cain, secretary for the park tenants’ association. Last September park residents sent Esslinger a letter of intent to purchase the property for $41 million when and if it is sold. “We aren’t a party to the pending lawsuit with the Coastal Commission, nor do we know what family arrangements have been or may be made concerning the park. We expect the family will need time to heal before moving on with these complex issues,” said Cain.
Besides his wife and daughters, Esslinger is survived by his parents, residents of Newport Beach.
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