Laguna agrees to help fund community garden purchase

Residents who want financial support from the city to secure a permanent home for South Laguna Community Garden Park made their case during last week's City Council budget workshop.

The council agreed to support the garden, voting 4 to 1 to earmark $250,000 toward an eventual land purchase.

But the decision came with the condition that the South Laguna Civic Assn. raise its share of a potential purchase price — currently an unknown amount — for the property.

One possible location is the quarter-acre garden on the corner of South Coast Highway and Eagle Rock Way, but the garden could end up moving to another location.

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said she supports a community garden, but she cast the dissenting vote because a permanent site hasn't been finalized.

Ahmed Altuwaigri and Hind M. Alruwaitea purchased the existing property for $1.2 million from former owner Paul Tran, according to an email from Ann Christoph, an emeritus association board member. The change in ownership has placed the park's future in question.

The association has raised $150,000 so far, Christoph said.

"We're tickled the city is behind it," resident Myron Wacholder said while standing in the garden Monday afternoon. "It makes our fundraising effort plausible."

Tran had been allowing the association to use his property as a community garden without charge. Christoph said the association, a neighborhood organization that oversees the garden, contacted the couple's Realtor about scheduling a time to meet and discuss the property's future.

The garden is more than just a place to stop in and water kale or tomatoes for 10 minutes, residents said during the budget meeting. The area is a gathering place for potlucks, gardening demonstrations, morning coffee and occasional musical performances, which are held on a wooden stage steps from kiwi vines and asparagus plants.

The property boasts 53 individual garden plots with added community space and a children's garden. Two or three neighbors share plots, so the number of people who garden totals about 175, Christoph said.

Gardeners pay $25 per year per plot.

Resident Sally Coffey is growing garbanzo beans, lettuce, cucumbers and eggplant.

She remembered her excitement five years ago when she learned the property would become a community garden.

"I didn't know many of my neighbors, but as soon as I had a plot, I felt like I had an instant family," Coffey said.

Coffey said nurses from nearby Mission Hospital come to the garden to eat their lunch.

Gardeners donate some of the produce to the nearby Friendship Shelter, which provides temporary housing for 32 adults.

The council set a tentative three-year limit for when the association would need to raise its share of the money to purchase land.

"We'll try to find a way to stay where we are, but we are open to looking at other properties," Christoph said. "We'll continue maintaining the property until the couple figures out what they want to do."

Councilman Steve Dicterow said the association has grown and evolved in the last two years.

"They have so many events there," he said. "It isn't just adults who like gardening. There are lots of kids and there are non-garden-related activities. It has become a true community park. I'd like to see other neighborhoods emulate what they've done."

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