Thousands of demonstrators, many holding placards denouncing the Irvine Co. and its chairman, Donald Bren, marched up Laguna Canyon Road Saturday in an eleventh-hour attempt to keep suburban sprawl out of one of the last undeveloped coastal canyons in Southern California.
Under bright sun that quickly broke the morning chill, a well-mannered cross section of Orange County's middle class set out at 9 a.m. to protest plans for more than 3,000 homes and a golf course in pristine Laguna Canyon.
Organizers of the procession say the estimated turnout of 7,000 to 8,000 people will send a message to Bren and the County Board of Supervisors that the massive Laguna Laurel project will not be tolerated in the middle of a huge greenbelt dedicated as open space.
Protesters also vowed they would make the development an issue in the county supervisorial races next election and called for Laguna Canyon to be turned into a regional park instead of the next urban planned community.
"This is common ground for everyone," said Harry Huggins, executive director of the demonstration. "Business owners and people of every type have joined together--it's the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."
The Laguna Laurel project, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 1984, calls for 3,200 Mediterranean-style houses, apartments and condominiums on 2,150 acres in Laguna Canyon two miles from the San Diego Freeway (I-405).
About 1,221 acres in the development will be open space, but the Irvine Co. wants to turn rural Laguna Canyon Road into a six-lane highway and build a number of main thoroughfares across the housing tracts.
The project site is just outside the Laguna Beach city limits near the Laguna Greenbelt, a swath of rural landscape that separates the quaint seaside community from the rest of the county.
While the Irvine Co. says the project's generous open space will complete the greenbelt, Laguna Laurel's opponents say it will only drive a knife through it, disrupting aesthetics and natural habitat.
"It's hopscotch development, just a big wart on an open area," said Laguna Beach City Councilman Dan Kenney, who attended the demonstration.
The Irvine Co. defended Laguna Laurel, saying it provides open space, housing and improves a dangerous stretch of highway. Company officials said they respected the public's right to protest, but the demonstrators are not well-informed.
"We don't question their desire and their good intentions to saving open space," said Larry Thomas, an Irvine Co. spokesman. "But they represent a narrow single-issue group, and we believe that our project addresses both their concerns about open space as well as many other concerns about transportation and shelter."
The march was the latest effort by the city, local businesses and environmentalists to halt the development they say will aggravate flooding in Laguna Beach, and destroy canyon wildlife and Indian burial grounds.
After a Veterans Day ceremony and pep talk by Laguna Beach Mayor Robert F. Gentry, demonstrators left the Festival of the Arts grounds and walked almost four miles along windy Laguna Canyon Road.
On foot, on bikes and in yellow school buses, the demonstrators from Laguna Beach and other cities filled the road's northbound lane, which was closed to traffic from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eco-chic--brightly colored hiking pants or shorts, T-shirts and running shoes--was the main attire.
Children were led up the rural highway by someone in a Panda bear costume. Adults and teen-agers followed, some with dogs at their sides or babies on their backs or in strollers. Many brandished placards saying, "Save Our Canyon," "Just Say No to Development," and "Donald Bren Has a Blackbelt in Greed So Leave Our Greenbelt Alone."
"It's a good cause," said Kim Norris, 28, who came from Fort Worth to be in the walk and visit her mother, Lanelle Whisenant. "I can't save a rain forest because I can't afford to go to there, but I can afford to be here."
Not far from Norris, Michael J. Lavery carried his 10-foot by 5-foot mural "Chaos of Progress." The painting shows an island of green grass and trees on a concrete pedestal surrounded by high-rises and jammed freeways. "Welcome to Laguna Beach," the mural says. "Thank God They Saved the Canyon."
Wearing shoe skates bought Friday at K mart, Edna Feeley, 18, and her friend Josi Harmon, 17, rolled through the crowd. They held each other's hand to steady themselves. Harmon's new skates were painted with hearts and rainbows.
"We want to save the canyon!" Feeley said as she almost fell backward. They hadn't skated in 10 years.
Up the road, Beth Leeds, a local environmentalist dressed as a fairy in a long white gown, waved a magic wand at passers-by.
"Up until now, the public has taken the word of developers that everything is OK," Leeds said as she tapped a marcher on the head with her wand. "Now, they look at Orange County and they're waking up to find that the environment is vanishing."
The walk ended in Sycamore Hills, a small recess where "The Tell" is located near the Laguna Laurel site. The word tell is an archeological term for an artifact that indicates what came before.
In this case, it is a 600-foot mural by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield that illustrates the canyon's natural history with photographs and magazine pictures. The crowd, occasionally chanting "Just Say No, Don Bren!" rallied around it for more than an hour.
"The Board of Supervisors should realize that today we voted with our feet and soon will be voting at the ballot box. They should hear what we are trying to say," said Peter Bowler, a director of Laguna Greenbelt Inc.
Robert Englund, who plays the evil Freddie Krueger in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series of horror films, was the only celebrity on hand to address the public. He moved to Laguna Beach this year.
"People always ask me what scares me and I think it's Donald Bren," Englund said. "Maybe we ought to unleash Freddie on Laguna Laurel."
Gentry and other elected officials called the walk a tremendous success and estimated that about a third of the demonstrators were from outside Laguna Beach, indicating that the issue was regional rather than local.
"This does not help them (the Irvine Co.) prove their case to the Board of Supervisors that this is just a bunch of 'Lagunatics,' " said Mayor Pro Tem Lida Lenney. "The best hope would be for the city of Irvine and Laguna Beach to work with the county to buy the land and preserve it."
But County Supervisor Roger R. Stanton contended that the demonstration was nothing more than a symbolic gesture that would not change anything. The County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission are not likely to reconsider their approval of the project, he said.
"I think it's a public demonstration and it has publicity value only," said Stanton, one of two supervisors who voted against the project. "The deciding vote was already held and it's unlikely in my opinion that anything will change."
The walk was sponsored by the city of Laguna Beach, the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, Laguna Greenbelt Inc., Village Laguna and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce. It was endorsed by about 180 businesses, elected officials, environmental groups and celebrities, including actor Mike Farrell, singer/actress Bette Midler and singer John Denver.
Laguna Beach police estimated the crowd size at 7,000 to 8,000 people. No injuries, arrests or accidents were reported.
"Everything went well," said Police Chief Neil Purcell. "It was a very, very orderly crowd. There were absolutely no problems, no angry people, no traffic accidents and no medical emergencies."
While the protesters marched Saturday, the Irvine Co. advertised and posted signs about the project along the portions of Laguna Canyon Road to counter the walk's publicity.
In a full-page newspaper ad entitled "And Now, a Few Facts About The Laguna Laurel Planned Community," the county's largest landholder espoused its project as a major boon to Orange County.
The advertisement emphasized the project's open space, including natural hillsides, canyons, and three natural lakes. The ad explained that 135 measures will be taken to protect natural resources and that the project's open space will complete the 23-square-mile Laguna Greenbelt.
The Irvine Co. also proclaims that it will provide more than $50 million to widen and improve rural Laguna Canyon Road, which has been one of the most dangerous roads in the county.
"If history is a guide, we expect that the march will not be informative to the public about what the project means for Orange County," Thomas said.
City officials and project opponents accuse the Irvine Co. of distortion and say they will continue to contest the project during the remaining governmental review process. The County Planning Commission still has to consider an environmental impact report for the proposed highway widening and management plans for lakes and runoff.
Laguna Beach already has hired a consultant, who contends that the project's voluminous environmental impact statement has left too many questions and failed to adequately address several potential dangers to the environment.
"We don't think it is a fait accompli, " said Richard Henrikson, a spokesman for the walk. "If we can mobilize enough people, we think it will have an effect. We have to grab the opportunity now or the canyon will become another sprawling community."
The Irvine Co. defended the project's benefits to Orange County and pointed out that development was approved after an exhaustive review process by the county.
"Whether there should be a development there has already been fought in the democratic arenas of the Board of Supervisors and the County Planning Commission," Thomas said. Danny Sullivan contributed to this article.
WAR:March culminates decade of battle over development. A37