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Our Laguna: Getting the people behind the canyon

Our Laguna: Getting the people behind the canyon
Gathering at The Tell for the Nov. 11, 1989, Walk in the Canyon.
(Courtesy BC Space Archives)

Many people in town take for granted the greenbelt that surrounds Laguna. But it almost wasn’t.

The Laguna Beach Historical Society hosted an informative panel discussion in May at City Hall on the history of the negotiations and the historic election that preserved a significant portion of the canyon from development.


Panelists included Carol Mentor McDermott, Irvine Co.'s representative on the Laguna Laurel Advisory Group, along with Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman, then and now a Laguna Greenbelt board member; Michael Phillips, now the city’s environmental analyst, but at the time of the negotiations the Greenbelt and Laguna Canyon Conservancy executive director; and former Mayor Paul Freeman, then a relative newcomer in town, who served as facilitator of negotiations.

What they were negotiating was the purchase of the property called Laguna Laurel, 2,150 acres on either side of Laguna Canyon Road from the El Toro Road intersection to the Irvine city limits. The company had county approval to build 3,500 homes and two golf courses, which were included in the 76% of the property dedicated to open space.


Local environmentalists were outraged by the Irvine Co.'s plan, not least of all by the mere idea that golf courses were open space.

Out-gunned financially and influentially, they nonetheless began negotiations with the mighty developer to acquire the property.

Historical Society Vice President Gene Felder attributed the Irvine Co’s. agreement to negotiate to “The Walk in the Canyon,” sponsored by the Laguna Canyon Conservancy and other community groups in 1989.

“I like to say (the Walk) brought the Irvine Co. to its negotiating knees,” said Felder, who arranged the panel discussion.


The successful negotiations to buy the property in five annual installments were covered in last week’s Our Laguna.

This week: the election

The agreement negotiated by the Laguna Laurel Advisory Group and signed on Oct. 7, 1989, wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on if Laguna’s voters didn’t approve a $20 million bond that would cover the major portion of the $33 million down payment for the property.

To meet the election deadlines, Measure H had been put on the ballot before the deal was struck. By the time the agreement was signed, the upcoming election was barely a month away.


“The key thing is (the purchase) required a two-thirds vote — which is not easy,” Felder said. “1956 is an example of how difficult it is.”

Voters failed to pass a bond measure to buy Main Beach that year and again two years later.

But local voter support for the acquisition of Laguna Laurel had been polled during negotiations, once in April and then in mid-summer.

Questions were carefully mulled until unanimity among the negotiators was reached.

“They were vetted and then we had an ‘opera’ on it,” Freeman said.

Grossman objected to any “pro-slanted” questions.

“I loved them,” Phillips said. “If we are asking for an opinion, why not get them on our side. I thought at the time that I should be an advocate. Norm was being honest, which really annoyed me.”

Grossman and Freeman were shocked at the results of the city poll, in which a majority — 80% — supported buying all of the project site, including spending almost twice the money for the more costly parcels out of the public view.

“We knew we had a shot at a simple majority,” said Freeman, who had been tapped to organize the bond measure.

However, with years of fundraising ahead, the Laurel advisory group wanted to show more than the required two-thirds approval.

Phillips was on board for the campaign, but Grossman, who was running for City Council in the same election, did not participate, nor did McDermott.

Freeman and Phillips had to convince the electorate that the money would be well-spent and there was opposition.

They promoted the acquisition of open space as a way to improve property values.

But even that didn’t convince the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn., which opposed the acquisition, Freeman said.

“I don’t remember that we put money into the campaign, but we were vocal,” said Bob Mosier, association president in 1990.

Art Casebeer and Jack Hefti were our voices.”

Casebeer and Hefti opposed Freeman in a series of debates on the purchase.

“We got along great — unlike politics today,” Freeman said.

And supporters stepped up to volunteer their time.

“I had never seen such a response,” Freeman said. “We had armies of volunteers. We could walk precincts twice, with teams of three.”

Another arrow in the quiver was the Burma Shave-type ads, planted in the dead of night by the Phantom of the Canyon — later identified as Toni Iseman, before she was elected to the council.

Iseman attended the presentation and recited from memory one of the series of signs, written by Village Laguna President Si Jones:

“See the Hills,

The Open Space

They’ll disappear

Without a Trace

The Irvine. Co.”

The bond passed by 79.9%, usually rounded up to 80%.

“It was the highest percentage of votes for a bond in 30 years,” McDermot said.

Many in the audience for the presentation were instrumental in the acquisition, including Laguna Greenbelt President Elisabeth Brown, Conservancy President Carolyn Wood, The Walk organizer Harry Huggins and canyon photographer Mark Chamberlain.

Also in the audience: Jane Janz, Ann Christoph, Ginger and Tom Osborne, Mary and George Rabe, Johanna Felder, Trudy and Bob Josephson, Verna Rollinger, Charlotte Masarik and Johanna Felder.

For those who missed the presentation, videotapes will be available from the Laguna Beach Historical Society, as are DVDs of previous society programs. The nonprofit society is supported by donations and membership fees of $15 per person, $25 per household or $50 per business or organization mailed to 278 Ocean Ave. Laguna Beach, Ca. 92651.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (714) 966-4608 or email with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.