Yikes... Came across this thread while doing another search and felt compelled to reply not just to the original post but to help provide some type of perspective for those who land here on future searches.
I am a second generation owner. My Dad bought a Santa Barbara unit (the 3 bedroom units that sit on top of the 2 car enclosed garage) in 1980 - original owner. He passed away last year and lef the unit to me. I've been around the whole 30+ years and can tell you that like most discussions, there is some truth to all the arguments here. The dues are excessive for value received, yes that's due to not one but 2 board fiascos (the recent one resulting in bankruptcy and the $2M judgement plus another back in the 90s) and yes for whatever reason we do seem to have had problems in the last 15 years or so electing boards that get a bit to activist and agressive. I've owned all sorts of properties including condos and detached with HOAs, and I can relate well to the comments that you get out of them what you put into them. Most people in our communities are not extremists, they are well-balanced people just like you who have managed to learn how to play well with others in the world. The problem is that most of us believe we have better things to do than deal with these problem children who seek these positions, whether on your HOA, or some other community association. We rationalize that we don't have time, that we'll wait until things "really get bad" and then boom - the wake up call occurs. Then of course, it's all too overwhelming, nothing can be done, etc.
The way Laguna Village returned to balance in the past was through reasonable, moderate, sincere owners stepping forward to reclaim the middle ground and finding ways to manage what needed to be managed and leaving the rest alone. Minimalist approach. Simple. HOAs work best when you see people using the language of neighbors, "we" instead of "they", "us" instead of "them". The best run associations promote a sense of community, of being in the boat together rather than as some semi-governmental organization that seeks to lecture, penalize and control a group of the less worthy or uneducated. Fiscal prudence has been at issue, since as one of the largest HOAs in Orange County (the largest?) with over 900 units, the board controls a very significant budget. There have been many mangement companies, accountants, lawyers, insurance agents and the like who have sought to parlay influence into increased billing by their business. That often means inexperienced board members or even sometimes people with conflicts of interest are acting upon inadequate or tainted advice.
By the way - Laguna Village was hit quite hard by the recession, with significant numbers of owners defaulting. This means the HOA isn't receiving dues and is in fact incurring cost to go after the back dues, fees, penalties and such. That fact is driving some of the recent increases as well.
If you can get past the HOA dues, the area and the community are very nice. The area is unique in that it abuts permanent open space to Irvine Ranch. For about the first 10 years after we moved there, each spring you could see the Irvine Rach cowboys moving the cattle through the hills. There are also many other benefits to living in the area. While it is true you might find other HOAs with more amentities for less dues, there are not too many other developments that can offer the same value as Laguna Hills when you consider climate, location and community. Keep in mind that in 30+ years there really have only been the a couple of disastrous boards. Let's hope that some new folks buying in during the dip will refresh the community spirit as oftentimes it is new owners who bring a sense of optimisim and a desire to shape the community into something more ideal. A key to this would be to somehow restore approval status with the FHA for loans. If future boards can put a lid on expenses and mange frugally (those grounds may not be what they once were or could be for a while) peace, tranqulity and stability are not far out of reach.