When Bob Borthwick read the email in his inbox telling him the city was awarded a $500,000 grant to restore part of Laguna Canyon Creek, he was overjoyed, nearly getting, he’s reticent to admit, emotional.
Who wouldn’t be? It’s no small chunk of change. But it wasn’t the money.
“I was overjoyed that other people recognize the value of Laguna Canyon as much as we do in Laguna,” Borthwick said Wednesday. He immediately called his family and friends.
The grant, the maximum amount available under the California River Parkways Act of 2004, will be used to revive what Borthwick, an environmentalist and landscape architect, considers “part of me.”
And it’s about time, he said.
Awarded to the city last week from the California Natural Resources Agency, the money will be used to restore five-acres of riparian habitat known as the DeWitt parcel. The acreage off Laguna Canyon Road extends from the south side of Anneleise School to Phillips Road on the north side of the Sun Valley neighborhood.
The trickling creek there is hidden from view by invasive weeds and mounds of dirt left by Caltrans after the 73 toll road was built, said Borthwick.
Borthwick envisions a magical respite there for waterways wildlife and wayfaring humans along a shady creek-bed of willows, wildflowers and sycamore and oak trees. The scene will be encircled by a loop footpath with intermittent nature interpretive stations. “I love creeks. And I love canyons,” Borthwick said. “And this is one that’s part of me.”
Borthwick was joined in his vision by Hallie Jones, executive director of Laguna Canyon Foundation, and David Shissler, the city’s director of water quality, to prepare the grant presentation.
“It was compelling and competitive,” said Shissler. “It was a real blitz at the end of the year when it was announced. We had to rush quickly to get all the information together and get all the team players put together.” Starting the project will take time, he said, due to environmental analyses and design plans. “It’s a big team effort,” he said.
A grant committee of six visited Laguna Beach last May, heard a power-point presentation by Jones and Borthwick and rode a trolley to the site. “It went really well during the field review,” said Shissler, who presented the grant application to the state. “We gave them everything they needed.”
The creek land is part of what was once a working 194-acre DeWitt family ranch with horses, pigs, ducks and chickens that’s now overrun with invasive weeds, dirt piles, trash and neglect. The city purchased the ranch for $2 million with a grant from the state Habitat Conservation Fund in 1991, according to Mary Fegraus, past director of Laguna Canyon Foundation, and city open-space acquisitions records.
A plan to restore the creek, an eight-mile waterway along Laguna Canyon Road sourcing from Laguna Lakes, was first presented to the city 12 years ago. But the shovel was dropped when funding fell through. Until Borthwick came up with a master plan.
A Master Plan for Canyon and Creek Improvements for about 20 isolated parcels from the 405 freeway to Main Beach was unanimously endorsed by the City Council last year. The plan, created by Borthwick and fellow Laguna Greenbelt board member Lance Vallery, highlights easy and relatively inexpensive ways to beautify the creek without getting into channelized sections or major, time-consuming undertakings.
“The thing Bob Borthwick created is a lot of little projects that are all complementary to one another and also complementary to the grand scheme we started back in ’04,” Shissler said. “It’s nice to have a guide to take us one piece at a time.” The DeWitt site is the biggest parcel in the plan.
“We decided DeWitt was the most likely to attract state funding,” said Borthwick, who volunteered his time to the project. “It was city-owned and big enough to make a visual impact. It was a pretty big coup.”
The grant reflects the community’s shift in thinking about the creek from storm drain to natural resource, said LCF director Jones.
The historic pink ranch house sitting on the hill above the creek will be restored and used as the new headquarters for Laguna Canyon Foundation in a separate project, said Jones. Offices are now housed in the American Legion Hall on Legion Street.
Plans also call for later improving Phillips Road on the south side of the property as a trail connecting to Aliso-Wood Canyons via Stair Step Trail, a steep path with deep rocky ledges considered an extreme ride by local as well as international mountain bikers, Jones said.
“In order to make our proposal sweeter to the state,” said Borthwick, the grant was augmented by $125,000 from the city and $5,000 from Ron and Frances Chilcote’s family Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation.
Sun Valley neighbors welcome the enhanced view. “The creek is a wonderful natural resource,” said Olivia Batchelder, a painter and textiles artist inspired by the wilderness next to her home. “It’s beautiful and it creates a wonderful natural habitat and sound barrier, especially from Laguna Canyon Road, which is significant. The creek has gotten degraded in many places.”
John Albritton, president of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners’ Association, thinks a city trolley stop there would alleviate potential parking problems, reduce traffic on Laguna Road and eliminate crossing hazards from Laguna Coast Wilderness Park across Laguna Canyon Road.