Finding the Money to Buy a Canyon : * Laguna Must Look High and Low for Needed Millions

Laguna Beach Mayor Lida Lenney said that the morning after Election Day, she awoke with a "$58-million headache." The euphoria of her city's astonishing 80% passage of a $20-million bond issue to help purchase Laguna Canyon was subsiding. In its place was the sobering realization that the bond sale would provide about a fourth of the $78 million needed over the next five years to buy the 2,150-acre canyon from the Irvine Co. That's a great deal of money for a city with a population of 25,000 and an annual budget of only $25 million.

What now?

There is no single answer, nor any easy one. To complete the purchase, the city needs to put together a patchwork of city, county, state and federal money, donations and fees aimed at meeting payments due between now and 1995, when a final $33-million payment will finalize the deal. That's going to take a complex and imaginative package of different strategies.

The thought of a 3,200-unit housing development in Laguna Canyon--no matter how tastefully or discreetly done--seemed so intolerable that it sparked a protest by 8,000 residents that led the Irvine Co. to the bargaining table. The result: an historic agreement for the city to purchase the canyon from the developer on very favorable terms.

But here comes the next set of hurdles: For example, the city must work with Supervisor Thomas F. Riley to resolve a dispute over construction of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor through the northern portion of the canyon. Riley has threatened to withhold $10 million in county money earmarked for purchase of the canyon over the next five years unless the city promises not to sue to block the corridor.

Working its way out of this dilemma may prove nearly as challenging for the city as the delicate negotiations that resulted in the pact to preserve Laguna Canyon. The two sides must try to find common ground, but Riley hardly can be surprised to learn that the city still opposes the roadway, given its reasons for wanting county help in keeping housing development out of the canyon.

There are other tough assignments, such as the need to bring in grants and donations. Soon, the City Council will decide whether to hire a fund-raiser. That won't be cheap--it could cost $5,000 a month--but a professional can help find the money needed to meet future payments.

The city should also pursue money from the county's new half-cent sales tax for transportation, which passed Nov. 6, that could be used to widen Laguna Canyon Road. While the Irvine Co. already has agreed to pay for the widening, any money it doesn't have to use for that project could be credited directly to the city for the canyon's purchase. But to be eligible for sales tax money, the city will have to do some serious negotiating with the county over the specific plans for widening the canyon road.

As if all that were not enough, the city must move quickly to compete for open-space, wetlands-preservation and wildlife-habitat money. It probably will need to propose a modest countywide open-space measure that clearly would provide money for projects in other areas of the county. And it should encourage formation of benefit-assessment districts in other nearby communities that also have a strong interest in preserving the canyon.

At one time, saving Laguna Canyon from development seemed like a crazy idea. Now, it's a happy headache for Lenney, Laguna Beach and the rest of Orange County--but there can be no illusions about how tough a job lies ahead.

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