It started with an improbable idea hatched by an improbable crusader. What the late Jim Dilley saw during a stay in England in the 1960s helped focus a dream for a corridor of open land around Laguna Beach known as the greenbelt.
"Jim returned from Europe with the idea of doing a greenbelt here," said Mary Fegraus, Laguna Canyon Foundation executive director. "He got the support of a lot of people in Laguna Beach and the Board of Supervisors. Basically the area of the San Joaquin Hills was all planned for development."
Now, decades later, environmentalists have made Dilley's dream a reality. A recent half-million-dollar contribution, plus a 2,000 acre set-aside by the Irvine Co., have virtually completed a 17,000 acre swath of rugged parkland stretch ing in a crescent from the former Aliso Pier north to Newport Coast Drive. It includes Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Aliso & Wood Canyons Regional Park and Crystal Cove State Park.
Over the years, the cause united several cities and a number of environmental groups. "It's amazing we managed to get what we did," said Jon Brand, former Laguna Beach mayor and former president of Laguna Greenbelt Inc., the organization begun by Dilley, a Laguna bookstore owner who died in 1980 of cancer.
Today's success "was because of Jim Dilley," Brand said. "He put the idea together, and we were his desciples."
The early environmentalists were part of a new breed. They were savvy and willing to mix it up with developers with protests and legal actions. In 1989, they organized one of the county's largest marches, in which more than 7,000 people walked down Laguna Canyon Road to protest the Irvine Co.'s planned 3,200-home Laguna Laurel development in the San Joaquin Hills.
Those efforts paid off. Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren agreed to sell the Laguna Laurel land, and nearly 80% of Laguna Beach voters approved a tax to buy it.
"These are not chain-yourself-to-a-tree environmentalists," Fegraus said. "They're thinking, long-term futurists."
But the victory will never be complete.
The hotly contested San Joaquin Hills tollway cuts clear across the vast rolling hills, which stretch from Costa Mesa on the north, south to San Juan Capistrano.
"The toll road was a crushing blow," Fegraus acknowledged. "We had been trying to get better design and undercrossings for wild life, and it was a failure all the way."
There have been some recent successes, however. The organization recently received $500,000 from Barbara Stuart Rabinowitsh, a central figure in the movement to stop development in Laguna Can yon. Rabinowitsh died last year at age 82.
Additionally, the Irvine Co. expects to turn over more than 2,000 acres as part of a set-aside agreement to be added to Laguna Coast Wilderness Park at the end of the month.
Some of the early advocates and groups included Laguna Greenbelt President Elisabeth Brown; Laguna Canyon Conservancy President Carolyn Wood; former Laguna Beach Mayor Robert Gentry; Michael Pinto, founder of the Laguna Canyon Foundation; Jean Watt, former Newport Beach council member and founder of SPON (Stop Polluting Our Newport); and Fern Pirkle, founder of Friends of the Irvine Coast.
"I'll tell you, they are good negotiators," said Carol Hoffman, Irvine Co. vice president of entitlement, who sat across many tables during negotiations with open space advocates from Laguna Greenbelt and Friends of the Irvine Coast.
The company, Hoffman said, always envisioned that large pieces of open space would be a part of development plans for the vast Irvine Ranch, which encompasses a large swath of the county, stretching into the San Joaquin Hills. The development plans include 93,000 acres, and, when completed, about 30% of the property will be permanent open space, a company spokesman said.
These advocates say that the fact that the Irvine Co. was the largest landowner made their crusade simpler but also expensive.
"Luckily there were only a couple of landowners. If there were more it would have been impossible to negotiate," Brand said, adding that land transfers such as the 2,000 acres may not have been possible with other developers holding smaller parcels.
In a related battle, Friends of the Irvine Coast founder Pirkle, 72, who is a Corona del Mar Realtor, led a coalition that brought at least two major lawsuits against the Irvine Co., over development of the Newport coast.
"Many times I was told, 'Forget it, Fern. You're dealing with the Irvine Co., and they have all the money and the power here,"' Pirkle said.
When the last Friends lawsuit settled in 1987, they won concessions from the developer that allowed for limited development of 2,200 acres in the Newport coastal area while keeping 7,200 acres, roughly 77%, open space, Pirkle said.
"I'm an environmentalist; I know that's dirty words to some," Pirkle said. "But that piece of land along the Irvine Coast, to me and a lot of people, has always been special. Now you can drive up and down the coast there and see a nice coastal view. If you look on the other side, it's getting developed. But it's not as much as could have been and if we hadn't fought, you wouldn't be able to go in there at all."
Originally, the fight for the greenbelt included only Laguna Beach. But Dilley preached that to succeed, Brand said, "we need broad support."
At the time, Orange County was in a pro-growth stage and was also the nation's fastest-growing county.
Environmentalists sought help from former U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-California) to create a national urban park that would include 11,373 acres around Laguna Beach. It passed the House, got President Jimmy Carter's support, but failed in the Senate in 1980. To this day, California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa's lack of support for the bill remains a sore point among open space advocates.
But the proposal drew attention to the natural resources in the rugged coastal canyons. The dream remained alive and its supporters scored a major victory when then Gov. Jerry Brown, using tideland oil money, supported the state's purchase of 2,888 acres from the Irvine Co. for $32 million and created Crystal Cove State Park.
Brand praised the efforts of Pirkle, who helped Laguna Greenbelt gain an ally with the Friends organization.
"She brought in Newport Beach," Brand said. "And that brought in big money. Plus, it was no longer just Laguna Beach trying to save some corridor around their city. The fight for open space was now spreading to Newport, and we also went into Irvine and got people there to feel that the south coast wilderness was their park too."
As they grew in strength, other groups sprouted, such as the Friends of the Irvine Coast, and SPON (Stop Polluting Our Newport) in Newport Beach.
"The one that started everything was the Greenbelt group," Watt said. "We formed SPON in 1974 because we were concerned about traffic, the [John Wayne] airport expansion and open space. We became allies with our neighbor environmental organizations."
Meanwhile, the ranks among environmentalists grew.
"We had our share of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans," Brand said. "There are people who are conservative with politics but liberals when it comes to supporting the greenbelt. It includes all kinds of people "
But the fight is not over. The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is about 95% completed, Fegraus said.
Still at issue is the status of several parcels owned by the Irvine Co., including 200 acres near the junction of Laguna Canyon Road and the 405 Freeway.
Despite the long-fought battles, Fegraus said she was glad that Dilley's vision of a greenbelt survived.
"Though Mr. Dilley passed away some time ago, he would be pleasantly surprised," she said.
[Clips from original newspaper articles appear here for educational purposes and purposes of comment, rather than commercial purposes. They are reprinted under the fair use doctrine of international copyright law. Copyright Los Angeles Times]
Back to top