LAGUNA BEACH : Measure to Preserve Canyon Considered

The City Council tonight will consider whether to ask local residents if they would pay to preserve open space in Laguna Canyon.

The discussion will center around whether steps should be taken to place a local bond measure on the Nov. 6 ballot to buy at least a portion of a 2,150-acre development site owned by the Irvine Co.

Earlier this month, county officials abandoned the prospect of a countywide bond referendum to buy open space in Laguna Canyon and elsewhere after a poll indicated that it probably could not muster the necessary two-thirds vote.

But in the same poll, 66% of the Laguna Beach respondents said they would pay $100 per year for 20 years to preserve a chunk of Laguna Canyon as a public wilderness park. The land, which is located between El Toro Road and the San Diego Freeway, is the site of the proposed 3,200-home Laguna Laurel housing development.

Estimates of the property's value have varied from $50 million to $100 million, according to Laguna Beach Mayor Lida Lenney, a city negotiator in ongoing meetings with the Irvine Co. and county officials. One official estimated that passage of a local measure would raise only $10 million. But preservationists say more could be raised through individuals, private industry and state and county government.

"When you're looking at a spread of between $50 million and $100 million, there isn't any way to begin to deal with the amount of money," Lenney said Monday. "I hope what will happen is we will go ahead with the bond measure and use that as a down payment on the property."

Irvine Co. officials say they also might consider modifying the project by building fewer homes and concentrating them near adjacent Leisure World.

"As the city of Laguna continues to look at its alternatives to funding a purchase or partial purchase, we are willing to consider options which could lead to modification of the plan," company spokeswoman Dawn McCormick said Monday.

Although some environmentalists balk at the prospect of any development in the canyon, Michael Phillips, executive director of the Laguna Greenbelt and the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, said those groups are considering other options. Any alternate project would have to be outside the watershed and out of view from Laguna Canyon Road, he said.

"We've been telling people all along that in order to reduce the total cost for the project, there's a possibility we might have to agree to some reduced development within the Laguna Laurel boundary site adjacent to Leisure World," Phillips said.

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