Our Laguna: Bid for open canyon space was hard fought

The Historical Society's program held May 28 on "How the Canyon was Won" was more like a group of friends reminiscing about a shared event that had come to a meaningful conclusion than the panel discussion that was billed.

Former Mayor Paul Freeman more or less moderated the discussion — really a conversation between former Irvine Co. negotiator Carol Mentor McDermot, Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman and city Environmental Specialist Mike Phillips. They were all members of the Laguna Laurel Advisory Group that participated in preliminary forays and formal negotiations with the Irvine Co. to save a significant portion of Laguna Canyon as open space.

"It is important that we not only reached agreement, but we remained friends," said McDermot, better known in town as Hoffman. "It meant a lot when I walked in tonight and got hugs."

The closed door negotiations led to unprecedented support by Laguna Beach voters to tax themselves to buy five parcels of the property known as Laguna Laurel, stretched out over five years, and the eventual dedication by Irvine Co. owner Donald Bren of the final parcel, a legacy that redeemed him in the eyes of many environmentalists.

The folks on the dais were all involved from the get go, even before formal talks began.

"A lot of people now take the open space in the canyon for granted," Grossman said. "They have no idea how it was acquired."

Grossman was then, as he isnow, a board member of Laguna Greenbelt, which attempts to at least slow down rampant development, if not stop it. In 1990, the group was appealing a court decision on the development of Laguna Laurel.

He also had participated in the county-wide Slow Growth Movement in 1987-88.

"I had learned a lot about negotiations and I feel there is always a chance of some kind of resolution beneficial to both sides, if you can get people talking," Grossman said.

Phillips, who had been a reporter when whispers about blocking Laguna Laurel started to surface, was, when negotiations began, the executive director of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy and the Greenbelt.

Although representing the detested Irvine Co., McDermot herself was difficult to demonize, Phillips said.

How can you hate someone who always brings cookies to meetings, speaks in a soothing tone and never loses her cool?

Freeman facilitated the negotiations.

"I was everybody's second choice," Freeman said. "Nobody trusted me."

He said he was described by Greenbelt President Elisabeth Brown as "the indispensable leak through which information flowed."

But there was never a leak to the media, Grossman said.

Serious consideration of the acquisition of Laguna Laurel was precipitated by the Board of Supervisors approval of entitlements to develop 3,500 homes and two golf courses, which were included in the dedication of 76 percent open space for the project.

"That didn't meet Laguna's idea of open space," McDermot said.

The late Lida Lenney was mayor and the sparkplug that lighted everyone's fire. It was she who made headlines by picketing Bren's home. The first words Bren said to Freeman at their first meeting was "Do you think it is civilized that one of your council members is picketing outside my house.?"

"I felt like a deer in the headlights," Freeman said.

Lenney also marched at the head of The Walk in the Canyon on Nov. 11, 1989. An estimated 7,500 to 10,000 walkers participated, depending on who is estimating.

Philips said her vision was strawberry fields (already growing in the outer canyon) all the way to the city. She cried when she finally accepted that Bren was not going to just give the land away, he said.

The walk ended at the art and archaeological project created by Mark Chamberlain and the late Jerry Burchfield that drew public attention to the potential destruction of the canyon by development.

But it wasn't just publicity that influenced the company.

With a recession imminent, company officials thought perhaps it was time to talk to buyers, McDermot said.

"Initially, I wasn't confident that the meetings were going to go anywhere," Phillips said. "But I knew we were serious when we identified money sources and pieces of what we could buy."

The group relied heavily on opinion polls to determine how much the community was committed to the acquisition and how much it was willing to spend.

Bren wanted $90 million for the land and $30 million for the entitlements, Freeman said.

"We knew we couldn't even get half way there."

Then the late Bob Fisher, county director of Harbors Beaches and Parks, informed the group that Supervisor Reilly would supply $2 million a year for five years.

"He went from being a villain to being a hero in a night," Freeman said.

The City Council said it could raise $5 million.

The company's $105 million evaluation of the property was sharply different from the city's $65 million, but it allowed wiggle room: how much less the company would take, how much for each parcel and how the most developable parcels could be held to the end, in case funding failed, McDermot said.

Negotiations were held alternatively at the posh Irvine Co. offices and in trailers in use outside of City Hall, which was being renovated. The trailers were cramped, not air conditioned and about 50 yards from a restroom.

"Everybody got irritable," Phillips said.

He recalled one impasse: Grossman, generally credited with being the most objective of the negotiators, suggested picketing the Irvine Co.'s Fashion Island the day after Thanksgiving.

"Cooler heads prevailed," Phillips said.

In all, 21 formal negotiating meetings were held between February and Oct. 7,1990 before an agreement was reached.

A party was held the next night at the Hotel Laguna. Bren was hesitant to attend.

"I found that endearing," Freeman said.

But Bren showed up for the celebration of the agreement, which would be moot if Laguna voters failed to pass the bond to buy the land.

Next week: The landmark election.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call 1 (714) 966-4608 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.

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