Laguna Woods is one of those cities that is often misunderstood.

While it’s true that 90 percent of Laguna Woods consists of seniors – the average age is 78 and female – there is another side to it explains long time City Manager Leslie Keane.

“I tell this to everyone who calls me,” she says. “They think that Laguna Woods is strictly a senior community, but the senior community is actually just a gated community within our city. About 95 percent of the land in Laguna Woods is owned by the gated community. We do have residents who live outside the gated community and we may have more in the future.”

There are some residential options outside those gates that are considered senior choices, including an apartment complex, an independent living facility, and an assisted living facility, as well as a new condominium complex being built for those 55 and over.

Laguna Woods has 18,500 residents and 14,000 households and is generally considered the largest gated “city” in California. In fact, the Laguna Woods Village – formerly known as Leisure World – makes up the bulk of the City and is the second largest HOA by population and housing units in California. Only Woodbridge in Irvine (not all gated) is the larger.

Keane, who is in her 60s, and who has been the City Manager since Laguna Woods was incorporated in March 1999, says she does enjoy working in a senior community and that seniors are often misunderstood.

“I enjoy this community and since we are such a small city – we only have a staff of eight – I have a lot of personal day-to-day interactions with the residents of the city,” she says.

“Yes, some seniors can be difficult, but many are a joy and inspiration to work with. I actually deal with residents on two levels; individually and through their homeowner’s associations. When we first became a city, the gated community was the only game in town and the county rarely came out to the area. The sheriff never came out unless there was an actual crime so, the HOAs did pretty much whatever they wanted. When we became a city, the HOAs had to abide by what we decided.”

She says city staff has been somewhat “lucky” over the years and has not had to deal with too many problems.

“There is just a very small minority who are unhappy with city government,” she says. “I have always said that there is a certain amount of angst from some people, regardless of what you do. There are always those who need to complain, but here, most of that happens behind the gates, and we are somewhat immune to it.”

Safest City

Keane added that Laguna Woods was actually named one of the safest cities in California and that is has a very low crime rate.

“However, many of the residents in the gated community are worried about their safety – a concern that people will scale the walls,” she says. “There is a high level of security in the gated community and they have their own security patrol. The City contracts with the OC Sheriff for police services and they patrol the City including the gated community, but they don’t enforce traffic regulations. Streets behind the walls are not technically streets; they are private property – so if someone speeds, private security  issues citations. We have some confusion with that because their patrol cars have lights on top and residents think they are being stopped by the police.”

As a result, Keane’s office sees a lot of residents who think they have been ticketed.

“We find ourselves saying it’s not a ticket, go back and talk to the HOA Board,” she says.

In fact, the City of Laguna Woods has only has three public streets, but that said, it also has one of the busiest intersections in the county – Moulton and El Toro – where there are three, red-light traffic cams in place.

“We get a lot of violations from people who don’t live in the city,” she says.

Positive Programs

Tickets aside, Laguna Woods provides many positive programs for its residents such as a taxi voucher program and a shuttle service to John Wayne Airport.

“We are very aggressive on getting grants, and we have gotten a large number to provide services,” she says. “We have a subsidized taxi service for those with mobility issues – we pay 60 percent of the cost – they buy a book of fake money to pay for the rest of the service. We also provide an inexpensive shuttle service to the airport; $16 each way – for the entire car not per person.”

But in the end, her role as City Manager has little to do with enforcing the regulations of the senior community and more to do with enforcing the City’s rules.

“The senior community has to abide by all of the City’s regulations,” she says. “We have had debates with the HOA over the years over building issues. They have allowed certain things we won’t and we have gone around and around on those issues, but there have also been other times when they wanted us to restrict things and we couldn’t.”

Building Permits

Another misnomer concerns obtaining building permits in Laguna Woods. The gated community issues its own building permits and conducts its own inspections. Residents need to get one from the HOA and one from the City.

“When someone comes to the City and asks for a building permit, we don’t require them to have a permit from the HOA first,” she says. “We suggest they do because they are more restrictive than we are. But we will issue a permit and you are on your own to deal with the HOA.”

And, the City is responsible for all of the areas outside of the gated community. For example, if a chain store wants to come in, they come to the City for the permit because it would be located outside of the gates. Keane says Laguna Woods actually gets its revenues from not one single source, but through some sales tax, as well as the hotel which provides a transient occupancy tax. The City has about 200 businesses, of which 100 are home-based.

“In our City we have a hotel, a Home Depot, an Office Max, restaurants and businesses that are not part of the gated community,” she says.

One thing that the City of Laguna Woods is not suffering from is budget problems thanks to Keane’s business savvy.

“We are doing well in respect to the budget, “she says. “When we incorporated 10 years ago, LAFCO said we wouldn’t make it and would go under in the seventh year. I have a small annual fund budget of about $5 million. So, my first 10 years, we managed to save $15 million, so we are doing fine, we have shortages, but it is not critical for us at this time.”

Hello, Cannabis

Another thing that separates Laguna Woods from other cities in Orange County is that it is also the only that city that will allow a medical marijuana dispensary.

“We have a permit process, and an ordinance to allow it, but to date, we have no dispensaries,” she says. “There have been no property owners who will rent to them although we had thousands of inquires and applications. The first week our regulations were announced, we had amazing people appear at City Hall who wanted to open dispensaries … There is a collective in the City who is  growing marijuana plants in the gated community’s garden center.”

Laguna Woods is also the only OC city to have passed a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance for dogs and cats.

“If your dog is running free, we will pick it up and spay or neuter it. Our residents are generally in favor of it,” she says.

So, what keeps Keane from leaving her role in this unique community?

“Every day is different,” she laughs. “Mostly, it’s very peaceful because all the controversy is over in the gated community.”

The writer, Debbie L. Sklar is a 20-plus year journalism veteran residing in Southern California, where she is a writer, columnist and editor for many local, regional and national publications. She is a regular contributor to and may be reached via e-mail at