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Guest column

 It Takes a Community to Preserve Open Space

Elisabeth Brown, a biologist and writer, is President of Laguna Greenbelt, Inc.

Laguna’s several hundred acres of remaining open land graces the entire town with marvelous views, wildlife habitat, and colorful native shrubs. For a small price, the open space initiative Laguna Greenbelt and many other groups are circulating offers us the chance to forever preserve this defining green backdrop.

How many times have you heard the complaint, “When we first moved here, the hills were open, and we often saw deer feeding. Quail mothers and their chicks came into the yard, and once there was a roadrunner on the fence. But over the years the neighborhood filled in, and now all we see are crows, and the occasional raccoon pawing in the trash.”

In fast-developing Orange County, those sentiments are so common as to be unremarkable.  People sympathize, share their own experiences, then shrug; and the conversation moves on. Nobody thinks they can do anything about it.

If you don’t hear this, then you probably live and socialize in Laguna, where we still have some open hillsides, and our wrinkled topography creates a network of steep-walled ravines lacing through town. These green hillsides and canyons are the inner greenbelt, linking all of our neighborhoods for wildlife movement.

At 4:30 in the morning, I hear the coming of the day. Outside, the dawn chorus is tuning up – finches, warblers, wrens, sparrows, towhees, and others with mysterious songs. I am fortunate to live so close to protected wild lands that many native birds visit the garden regularly. 

Those lands were protected by sustained community action over decades. It wasn’t easy, painless, or free.

Beginning in 1986, we got big dollops of funds from state park and open space bond acts. Now we’re using up the last of the money.  Most of the propositions included specific funding for Laguna in exchange for gathering thousands of signatures to help qualify them for the ballot. Laguna Greenbelt made the promises, and volunteers from many groups spent their summers with petitions in front of the arts festivals or the supermarkets. The statewide community of voters bought green hillsides in and around Laguna.

In a sense we were too successful. Sacramento legislators don’t like citizen action, and they forced a stop to the open space bond acts. Now it’s up to us alone to finish the job.

Here and there throughout town, individual homeowners or small groups of neighbors quietly purchase properties to prevent them from being developed. I know about a few of these efforts, and there must be more. These are community actions on a small scale, to benefit a single neighborhood.

In 1990 the whole town voted to pool funds for 20 years to protect Laguna Canyon from a large development. That successful program ends this year, but the iconic green backdrop and inner canyons that define Laguna Beach are still vulnerable.

Volunteers are out collecting signatures for the open space initiative, especially on weekends.  Please seek them out and add your name to those of your neighbors.  Better yet, join us!

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