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Our Laguna: James Dilley remembered at conservancy dinner

The Laguna Canyon Conservancy honored Jim Dilley on Monday at Tivoli Terrace.

Recognized as the “Father of the Greenbelt, Dilley would have been 100 years old this year. Scott Ferguson donned a bushy mustache to take on the persona of Dilley and recount some of the stories that have become legend in Laguna.

Ferguson, as Dilley, said it was great to be there, and not just because the monthly dinner only costs $10, but because of all that has transpired in the greenbelt since a company called Great Lakes Carbon decided to buy up land on the corner of Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads in the early 1970s and develop it.

“This was a test of how much a community could limit development,” Ferguson said.


The word was out that the powerful law firm of Rutan and Tucker was threatening to sue the city if it opposed the development, but Dilley was not intimidated. He made an impassioned plea to the council that the parcel was the heart of the greenbelt, the heart of the watershed, and that it was incumbent on the city to preserve that heart. He said it was the “buckle of the greenbelt.”

The plan went down the tubes, and when the acreage was acquired by the city, it was named in his honor: the Dilley Preserve.

Dilley would talk to anyone who would listen about his dream of encircling Laguna with a green belt — and some who didn’t want to listen.

In a 1992 article in the Los Angeles Times, former Supervisor Tom Riley is quoted as saying, “Jim could bring me to the boiling point faster than just about anyone.”


Dilley took the county supervisors to task over the county’s conservation element, a less-than-stellar plan created because the state mandated it. The plan included two little strips alongside a creek that Dilley called the G-strings of open space.

Another Dilley legend involved his access to Orange County Supervisors. He always showed up with a flower for their secretaries and they made sure he got in to see their bosses.

Dilley was revered, but how much do even his most devout admirers really know about him?

They were tested Monday by Harry Huggins, organizer of the walk in 1989 that opened the eyes of Orange County officials to the deep opposition to development in outer Laguna Canyon.

For instance, only a couple of people at the sold-out dinner knew that Dilley was born in New Mexico, that his middle name was Wilbert or that he had doctorates in history and English.

He was old-school about women, but who knew he really hated getting the “Male Chauvinist of the Year Award,” even though he referred to his wife, Jeannette, as “that woman”?

He didn’t even recognize Bette Davis when she sashayed into the bookstore the Dilleys owned in Laguna.

Customers at the store could expect to get advice from him on what to read. His personal favorite was “Ulysses.”


When Dilley was asked if there were any women on his Laguna Greenbelt Inc. board, he began naming them and exclaimed, “My God, they run the thing — no wonder we have problems.”

Perhaps some of the problems stemmed from his habit of keeping all the organization’s documents stored in an old roll-top desk in the alley behind his bookstore.

Still, he wrote a letter of introduction for a young female landscape architect who planned to go to England to learn about the town planning of London.

“I still have the letter,” Ann Christoph said.

Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger was one of the few who knew that Patrick and Bonnie were the Dilleys’ collies. She also knew that he called automobiles “infernal combustion machines.”

The Dilleys lived in Three Arch Bay before South Laguna was annexed into the city, which foiled one of his plans.

“He had the notion to apply for the Planning Commission,” Arnold Hano said. “I told him he didn’t live in Laguna and he didn’t talk to me for a year.”

Before moving to Laguna Beach, Jim Dilley was a professor of medieval history at San Mateo Junior College and his wife, Jeannette, taught at San Mateo High School, according to David Kristjanson, who had been one of her students.


Ron Chilcote shared the information that Dilley also founded the Citizens Planning Assn.

However, nothing took precedence over his dream to create a greenbelt to buffer the sprawl creeping up on Laguna.

Inspired by the green spaces he had seen on a trip to England, Dilley founded Laguna Greenbelt Inc. in 1968.

What a joy it would have been for him to see the swaths of open space preserved and protected through the efforts of the organization he founded.

The 22,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is the second largest coastal open space preserve. Only the Santa Monica Mountains National Reserve is larger.

But the work of the Laguna Greenbelt is not done.

An initiative to preserve the important wildlife habitat connection between the Laguna Greenbelt/South Coast Wilderness and the Cleveland National Park is a top priority. The FBI wants it for a training ground.

Greenbelt volunteers enhanced the protected areas not only from vandalism but by new plantings cradled in the Greenbelt Nursery run by Robert Lawson. The results can be seen in Aliso Woods and Laurel canyons, and along Laguna Canyon Road, but don’t expect them to stand out — these are natives.

Volunteers also fight the good fight against the invasion of the unwanted vegetation, such as the dreaded pampas grass.

The nonprofit Laguna Greenbelt is governed by a board of directors headed by perennial President Elisabeth Brown. Pamela Quigley and Chilcote serve as vice presidents. Richard Picheny is the treasurer.

Directors include Norm Grossman, Bob Borthwick, Robert House, Francine Scinto, Allan Schoenherr, Patricia Twitty, Lance Vallery, Lenny Vincent and Jill Cremer.

New members are welcomed. For more information, visit

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (714) 966-4618 or email with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.