Our Laguna: Environmentalists to be honored as Villagers of the Year

Environmental activists Elisabeth Brown and Carolyn Wood will be honored Saturday as the "Villagers of the Year."

Both women have been in the forefront of the battle to acquire and preserve open space in and around Laguna, starting in the days when "tree hugger" was meant as an insult not as a compliment.

"These are remarkable women," said Mary Fegraus, whose environmental credentials are also first rate.

"I have always been in awe of Carolyn, first because of her filing cabinets on the history of Laguna Beach. She is a compiler and anyone would be foolish not to ask her for information.

"Carolyn is so focused — she can be stubborn — when she wants something. But most of the time, due to that stubbornness, great things have happened for Laguna Beach.

"She is the more radical of the two — and more about Laguna — where 'Lis' has been more focused on regional open space.

"Lis and I go back a long way. I really got to know her when we served for six years on the Planning Commission in the mid-1980s. She convinced me to go on the Laguna Greenbelt Inc. board.

"During those years, she was my mentor. She has always been an inspiration to me."

It was Brown who taught Fegraus about coastal canyon habitat, invaluable knowledge for the 17 years Fegraus served as executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

And it was Brown who lobbied for Fegraus to succeed her on the Coastal Greenbelt Authority, the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park oversight committee, from which Brown recently retired after 20 years.

Brown has served as president of Laguna Greenbelt Inc. even longer — more than 25 years — and as a member of the board before that.

She is not one to seek the limelight — she never chained herself to a tree or blocked the path of a bulldozer, but she was a bulldog behind the scenes.

Brown moved to Laguna in the 1970s with her first husband, Allen. A threat to their serene Canyon Acres home kindled her passion for the environment. She joined former resident Belinda Blacketer, landscape designer Jeff Powers, Ray Unger, and of course, Wood, to successfully block development of projects planned for the end of Alta Laguna Boulevard above Canyon Acres.

At the same time, Brown earned a doctorate in biology from UC Irvine — a field of study she had pursued as an undergraduate and post graduate student at UC Berkeley.

Brown really hit her stride in the 1980s.

She and Jon Brand and members of the Laguna Greenbelt wrote responses to the Irvine Co.'s environmental impact report for the proposed Laguna Laurel project on unincorporated land in Laguna Canyon. Then the Greenbelt challenged the project in court.

"We lost," said Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman, a Greenbelt board member since 1984. "The decision was appealed, but never ruled on because the city and the Irvine Co. reached an agreement on the sale of the property."

Brown worked with then-Assistant City Manager Rob Clark, Irvine Co. representative Carol Hoffman and Fegraus on grant applications for some of the funding, which, along with the $20 million bond the voters approved, allowed the city to exercise most of the five options for land that would become the nucleus of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.

The park opened to the public April 10, 1993. More than 500 park docents have been trained in a program she started, based on Brown's book, "Back Pocket Field Guide: An Introduction to Orange County Wildlands."

Moving further afield, Brown contributed to the development of the Natural Communities Conservation Plan, which preserved 38,000 acres of open space in the county, including the wilderness park.

Brown and Grossman joined forces in 1998 to create an initiative that required voter approval for any zoning changes for city-owned open space.

The council adopted it without putting it on a ballot, Grossman said.

Brown's ongoing crusade is to secure viable wildlife corridors to connect Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and the rest of the Greenbelt to inland open spaces within Orange County through the OC Great Park to the Cleveland National Forest.

"Both Elisabeth and Carolyn have been critical to the preservation of the greenbelt," said Grossman. "They have been essential in acquiring land that makes our city special."

Wood has been president of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, which she co-founded, for more than 20 years. She is also secretary of the Laguna Canyon Foundation and a perennial member of the city's Parking, Traffic, and Circulation Committee.

Parking and traffic issues drew her into community service. She keeps tabs on the Festival Parking Plan and vigorously, although unsuccessfully, fought to keep ACT V reserved for public parking.

Wood worked with Brown and others to stop a development that required the extension of Alta Laguna Boulevard down to Canyon Acres and to get the city to buy the area for open space. Her efforts were recognized by naming the highest elevation on the property Carolyn's Knoll.

She was among the estimated crowd of 3,000 to 10,000 folks who strolled, biked and skateboarded down Laguna Canyon Road to protest the Laguna Laurel project in 1990.

Wood also was instrumental in convincing the California Coastal Commission that a Caltrans proposal to chop off a chunk of an ocean-side hill was not the best way to widen Laguna Canyon Road at Big Bend.

Under Wood's leadership, the Laguna Canyon Conservancy meets regularly to learn about and weigh in on environmental issues in the city and beyond its borders.

A Laguna Beach resident since 1968, Wood has been a fierce warrior on behalf of the local environment and has the archives to prove it.

Villagers of the Year festivities will be hosted by Village Laguna at a local home that was on the Charm House Tour this year. A donation of $85 is suggested. Proceeds will benefit Village Laguna philanthropies and support local candidates of kindred philosophy about village character, the environment and ocean water quality.

For more information and reservations, call (949) 499-4809.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 302-1469 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.

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