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1993 Fire Became a Tool for Use in Laguna Beach Development

Ann Christoph is a former mayor of Laguna Beach and was a member of the City Council from 1990 to 1994

The compassionate coverage of our downtown fire last November contrasted strikingly with the reporting of the fire disaster that hit our community more than five years earlier. After the 1993 fire, we were saddened by the losses our friends and neighbors had suffered. We were doing our best to help the fire survivors get back into their homes. At the same time, we were being told it was all our fault.

We were burned, not only by the fire, but by the press and conservatives who seemed almost to gloat over our community’s misfortune. They seemed to see the fire as recompense for our nonconforming views and policies, particularly those that preserved the environment and limited development.

Our unique and scenic setting attracts those who value beauty over predictability and control. Our artistic history has fostered an enjoyment of and appreciation for diversity, even eccentricity, in expression. Our (until recently) remote location has fostered a tradition of self-reliance and independent thinking. All this, to us who live there, results in a vibrant community dedicated to protecting our people and our way of life.

The press, instead of understanding this uniqueness, describes us as dabbling in a wide spectrum of causes. This trivializing of what Laguna is about is part of a broader political effort that tries to discredit our decision-making.

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Since the early 1970s, Laguna Beach has been working on preserving the Laguna Greenbelt. In the late 1980s, this effort came into direct conflict with the plans of Orange County’s developers. Thousands of people walked Laguna Canyon protesting the Irvine Co.'s development there. This eventually led to a $20-million bond issue with which Lagunans taxed themselves to buy canyon open space.

We also protested the construction of the San Joaquin Hills toll road through the canyon, a project important to various South County developments. In 1990, there were five Democrats on the City Council, and the word was out that the Orange County Republican establishment had targeted Laguna Beach for a change in politics. At the same time, Merrill Lynch purchased the Treasure Island property on Laguna’s coast. Since then, it and its mobile home park owner cohorts have spent over $350,000 on Laguna Beach elections, in an effort to get policies and a council receptive to their plans.

The fire became a tool for achieving the goals of those who wanted to develop Laguna Beach. The press helped by airing intense criticism of our leaders and minimizing their comments, promoting the fallacy that public safety and environmental preservation are competing and incompatible goals, and uncritically reporting distortions of the facts surrounding the fire.

Here are just some examples: When we council members arrived at the Main Beach Park command center the morning after the fire, we found it crowded with county and state politicians, including Gov. Pete Wilson.

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Our first chance to report to the community on television was the next council meeting--a delay that left residents without immediate local reassurance. There followed in the press incessant accusations, with almost no opportunity for our own perspective to be heard.

Much of the discussion focused on the proposed Alta Laguna reservoir, which critics said could have saved more houses had the council approved its construction. In fact, the reservoir was the responsibility of the Laguna Beach County Water District. The district wanted to build it on city land. Even if the council had been able to approve the location when requested in 1992, the reservoir would not have been finished before the fire.

The city’s fire preparedness was criticized, but the goat grazing program already had been completed in North Laguna and the Skyline Drive areas. The fuel modification in North Laguna is credited with helping to prevent loss of homes there. Emerald Bay (not in the city of Laguna Beach) had no such program and suffered much greater losses.

It was suggested that “environmental concerns” had caused a delay in setting a “prescription fire” or controlled blaze in the weeks before the fire. In fact, the county had delayed the planned preemptive fire because conditions weren’t right at the time.

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The sad part is that this strategy of manipulation and misinterpretation worked. Elected under the banner of increased public safety, Laguna’s council now is much more receptive to development. It recently approved the Merrill Lynch proposal for the Treasure Island redevelopment, for example, and at the same time waived $2 million in developer fees.

What an impact the coincidence of natural disaster and corporate desire to develop can have on the future of a community--absent a press that presents the whole story.


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