Editorial: Early activists played key role in city's success

Laguna Beach was recently referred to rather off-handedly in a regional magazine as "the finest city in Orange County." What is it about Laguna Beach that attracts this kind of lavish praise? Is it the city's quaint, old-fashioned charm, its artistic ambience, or its beautiful beaches and canyons? It's all of these and more.

And it might have been a very different story.

The Laguna Beach we know and love might not be in existence but for the willingness of a group of residents to turn the direction of the city away from a South Beach or wannabe Waikiki back in 1971.

Some local developers and property owners had decided it was time to start building 100-foot tall hotels on the glorious Laguna sands along "hotel row" — from Broadway to Bluebird Canyon — and the five men on the City Council agreed. One can only imagine the pressure brought to bear on the council by those who stood to gain richly from turning the low-key, low-rise village into a concrete canyon of skyscrapers.

The council that approved the 100-foot development zone had also set the high-rise course by granting the Surf & Sand a 23-foot height addition. Laguna Beach was on its way "up." But not so fast.

Residents led by Arnold Hano and other council critics — who were also early environmentalists — launched a counter-measure by initiative and city voters handily overturned the new zone, setting a strict 36-foot height limit throughout the city which stands today.

The vote was held Aug. 3, 1971. Shortly after the low-rise victory, supporters formed a new group to keep the "village" aspect of Laguna Beach intact through eternal vigilance. That is Village Laguna, a feisty organization that is one of the longest-tenured and arguably most influential political group in Laguna Beach.

Village Laguna recently celebrated this signature victory, and its own birthday, with a 40th anniversary party at Aliso Beach.

The 36-foot height limit is the bane of many commercial property owners, but it stopped Laguna Beach from becoming over-urbanized and top-heavy with development; and kept it on a human scale. And that, in turn, has been the reason that so many are in awe of the city's attractiveness.

Those early activists and their descendants are, indeed, to be congratulated for keeping the city among the "finest" not only in the county, but along the Southern California coast.

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