Canyon Parcel Now Off-limits to Development

Laguna Canyon Foundation leaders Max Borella and Derek Ostensen take to the trails on newly acquired open space in Rim Rock Canyon.
Laguna Canyon Foundation leaders Max Borella and Derek Ostensen take to the trails on newly acquired open space in Rim Rock Canyon.

It may be the last of a state bond that allocated $12 million to Laguna Beach to purchase open space but it won’t be the last effort to acquire all remaining wilderness areas here, vowed Derek Ostensen, president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

After seven months of prep work, LCF acquired 56 acres last week of canyon wilderness with a knock-out ridge-top view for what some would consider a paltry $1.5 million.  Known as the McGehee family property in Rim Rock Canyon, the property extends from Temple Hills Drive to Old Top of the World Road and west to Morningside Drive in Rim Rock Canyon.  The city holds the deed.  Orange County Parks will maintain the property.

Marge McGehee and her husband Bill bought the property in the 1970s with mixed feelings about what to do with it. “It was so beautiful,” she said. When Bill passed away recently, she and her family, who are long-time backpackers, decided they wanted to preserve it as open space rather than sell it as a more- lucrative residential development.

Michael Gosselin, a local realtor who supported the open-space initiative Measure CC that was defeated on last November’s ballot, said he never thought the McGehee property would be developed anyway.

“I didn’t think it would ever be developed because access was so difficult,” Gosselin said.  “But I think it’s a good piece of land to preserve if they have the money to do that. I’m not sure it would have been built, but who knows?”  The property was one of the larger parcels of approximately 500 acres in Laguna Beach that remain undeveloped.

Voters defeated Measure CC, which proposed a $120 per year flat tax on every parcel in town and would have amassed $20 million for open space acquisitions over 20 years. The measure failed by 55.6 percent of the vote.

The money to purchase the McGehee property came from the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000, known as Prop. 12.  It allocated $12 million of its $1.364 billion to LCF to buy what it could.  In the last 12 years, LCF has purchased and preserved more than 310 acres within the city for $10.4 million in a collaborative effort with the state Coastal Conservancy, Laguna Beach, Orange County Parks and The Conservation Fund.

“This is the last of Proposition 12 but it’s certainly not of our acquisition efforts as a foundation,” asserted Ostensen.

Ostensen, whose foundation has taken a neutral stand on political issues for the last 22 years, thought the measure could have provided assistance to his group’s mission of acquiring all available wilderness parcels within the city.  To get what they need done, he said, they need local assistance.

As technology, politics and land values change, the future of remaining undeveloped properties becomes more uncertain, Ostensen said. “We’re doing this not for the next 10 years or 20 years but for future generations,” he said.

Even now, he said, small land parcels in Laguna Beach don’t necessarily rank high when competing for limited financial resources against property considered more threatened, such as wetlands with a rare species or an endangered redwood forest threatened by logging.

Ostensen said local funding sources would help achieve the foundation’s long-term goal established in the early 1990s with the purchase of 1,403 acres for $45 million in Laguna Canyon.  The purchase was partly funded by a voter-approved self-tax that raised $20 million over 20 years and recently lapsed.  “You can’t always get state money to buy all these little pieces of land,” he said. “A lot of small communities like us have found that one of the best ways to preserve their open space, particularly when it’s made up of a lot of small parcels, is to locally fund that effort.  Local funding attracts state and federal funding.”

Paul Freeman, campaign manager for the defeated initiative, said it doesn’t take too many large parcel-purchases to deplete scarce financial resources.  In addition to the 56-acre Rim Rock Canyon parcel, Freeman said there are other large pieces of property with development potential that could be preserved as open space, but funds are running short.

“We didn’t say there was no money,” Freeman said of Measure CC campaign statements. “We said it was nearly gone.  It is nearly gone.  The city money that is usually used to provide at least some match for grants is nearly gone and the Prop. 12 money is also nearly gone.”

Prop. 12 money will run out this year and the McGehee property will be the last LCF acquisition under that fund, Ostensen said.

But that hasn’t dampened the foundation’s ambition. The next major fund-finding effort involves 200 acres in Aliso Canyon behind the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course. With cutbacks in state and federal money due to the economy, Ostensen said, “There’s still a big uphill battle for that.”

Driftwood Estates, LLC owns the 250-acres of open canyon land, which is not currently on the bidding block, said Joan Gladstone, a spokeswoman for Aliso Creek Properties.  The adjoining 85-acre golf course and 60-room inn are for sale by Aliso Creek Properties, LLC.


Photos by Edgar Obrand



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