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Our Laguna: Getting the people behind the canyon

Suspense surrounding $20 million bond measure to purchase open space decades ago is recalled.

June 13, 2013|By Barbara Diamond
  • Gathering at The Tell for the Nov. 11, 1989, Walk in the Canyon.
Gathering at The Tell for the Nov. 11, 1989, Walk in the… (Courtesy BC Space…)

Many people in town take for granted the greenbelt that surrounds Laguna. But it almost wasn't.

The Laguna Beach Historical Society hosted an informative panel discussion in May at City Hall on the history of the negotiations and the historic election that preserved a significant portion of the canyon from development.

Panelists included Carol Mentor McDermott, Irvine Co.'s representative on the Laguna Laurel Advisory Group, along with Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman, then and now a Laguna Greenbelt board member; Michael Phillips, now the city's environmental analyst, but at the time of the negotiations the Greenbelt and Laguna Canyon Conservancy executive director; and former Mayor Paul Freeman, then a relative newcomer in town, who served as facilitator of negotiations.

What they were negotiating was the purchase of the property called Laguna Laurel, 2,150 acres on either side of Laguna Canyon Road from the El Toro Road intersection to the Irvine city limits. The company had county approval to build 3,500 homes and two golf courses, which were included in the 76% of the property dedicated to open space.

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Local environmentalists were outraged by the Irvine Co.'s plan, not least of all by the mere idea that golf courses were open space.

Out-gunned financially and influentially, they nonetheless began negotiations with the mighty developer to acquire the property.

Historical Society Vice President Gene Felder attributed the Irvine Co's. agreement to negotiate to "The Walk in the Canyon," sponsored by the Laguna Canyon Conservancy and other community groups in 1989.

"I like to say (the Walk) brought the Irvine Co. to its negotiating knees," said Felder, who arranged the panel discussion.

The successful negotiations to buy the property in five annual installments were covered in last week's Our Laguna.

This week: the election

The agreement negotiated by the Laguna Laurel Advisory Group and signed on Oct. 7, 1989, wasn't worth the paper it was printed on if Laguna's voters didn't approve a $20 million bond that would cover the major portion of the $33 million down payment for the property.

To meet the election deadlines, Measure H had been put on the ballot before the deal was struck. By the time the agreement was signed, the upcoming election was barely a month away.

"The key thing is (the purchase) required a two-thirds vote — which is not easy," Felder said. "1956 is an example of how difficult it is."

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