Community Commentary: Initiative needed to finish city's 'greenbelt'

There aren't a million ways to protect open land from being developed: It can be mitigation for development; it can be exchanged for permits to build elsewhere; it can be donated for federal tax credits; or it can be bought. The source of funds can be federal, state, county, city, corporations, private foundations or a few individuals.

The only question is: Who pays the tab?

For 25 years I lived in a deep side canyon in Laguna Canyon. Instead of a grid pattern, houses followed the creek bed, or were built on small, perched, flatter areas on the slopes. This meant that houses often confronted each other in unpredictable ways. Old parcel maps showed a nonexistent little cul-de-sac right behind our property. Like most of the old city maps, lines were drawn without allowing for the steep terrain.

Access for the cul-de-sac was drawn boldly across the creek and up a steep slope to a possible building pad just above us, with a commanding view of our house and patio. The city would not allow that route, so would-be builders tried to gain access from the top off a narrow private lane — actually a shared driveway — just above our garden. Their only hope was to tempt someone with an easement to sell them access. Every time this happened, we held our breaths until everyone finally turned down the offer.

After a particularly close call, we joined with two other neighbors, bought the land and divided it among us so the lots disappeared. This sort of private action happens from time to time all over town, to safeguard views, privacy or solitude. Even billionaires have these problems; one bought the house across the street from his because its blue roof spoiled his view.

Of course, there has to be a source of funds, and this is always the problem. Pooling funds is the answer.

Measure M is the half-cent sales tax for transportation projects in Orange County passed in 1990, and reauthorized in 2006 as M2. Measure M2 created the OCTA Environmental Mitigation Program, a fund of almost a quarter of a billion dollars. These funds are allocated according to a comprehensive program for land purchases. The criteria include ecological factors like habitat quality and quantity, size, proximity to other open space, or being a corridor between protected open space parcels.

The overarching goal for the M2 environmental funds is to acquire parcels adjacent to protected open space, to create larger, contiguous protected open space areas. This is exactly what Jim Dilley persuaded Orange County planners to do in the early 1970s, and that enabled us to have the huge greenbelt of parks we enjoy today.

Laguna's open space preservation experience is somewhere in between a single neighborhood and what will be a countywide network of open space. The city is fortunate to be built mostly on steep and wrinkled topography. It is difficult and expensive to build on, but affords great views because many houses are above or below each other rather than being directly behind or in front of them. The irregular topography also allows wildlife to move through the many watercourses that thread their way through the canyons.

Most of us remember passing Measure H, a $20-million bond act in 1990 "to buy Laguna Canyon," but our open space acquisition program is older than that. In 1978, we bought Sycamore Hills — Jim Dilley's "buckle of the greenbelt," and we've had an active land acquisition program since then. Beginning in 1986 we used funds from state park and open space propositions, and we're still using up the last of the money from the final one. The park bond act days are over, at least for the foreseeable future.

None of the big open space acquisitions "'just happened." As massive as it might have appeared to be, Measure H's $20 million was only the beginning of the $48 million we ultimately paid for outer Laguna Canyon. The rest came from many sources, during years of hard work, and cooperation among the landowner, the city and the local environmental community. Ultimately, we raised $60 million, spending the last $12 million on more than 250 acres in inner Laguna Canyon.

Laguna has been the beneficiary of generous private donations (sometimes after a long struggle); has received federal aid, state funds and county funds. We also taxed ourselves — all to buy land we value in its natural state. We've been hugely successful, but we're not alone. San Juan Capistrano quietly voted and passed a $21 million bond act in 1989 to purchase a greenbelt of agricultural land around that city.

Our open space acquisition program is about to end, as we have exhausted our open space funds. The Laguna Beach Open Space Initiative currently being circulated for signatures will create a special acquisition fund for the next 20 years.

The bottom line is, to preserve Laguna's beloved green backdrop, we'll just have to finish buying it.

ELISABETH M. BROWN is president of Laguna Greenbelt Inc.

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