Will Change Make Laguna Into Newport Beach South?
By Jean Hastings Ardell
Considering our town’s many controversies—the survival of downtown businesses, affordable housing, historic preservation, the Design Review Board, the search for a new city manager, even the behavior at city council meetings—I’ve come to wonder whether the underlying issue is that of Change. I capitalize the word because we’re talking about Big Change. And Big Change can be destabilizing.
It has always been so. Looking back, as Orange County began to urbanize from an agricultural region in the 1960s and 70s, it unsettled many of us, who witnessed acres of orange groves upended, their dying roots bared to the sun, in favor of soon-to-be-built subdivisions and new cities like Irvine and Mission Viejo. Living in Newport Beach as I did, I saw change come to the city’s historically charming neighborhoods. For years we lived on a street that overlooks Buck Gully, with a fairly funky collection of beach places. Ours was a board-and-batten cottage designed in 1955 by Laguna Beach architect James Ward Henry the elder. Next door was a roughly built house, more shack than cottage, owned by a delightful family who invested mostly in their children’s education and not so much in the upkeep of their front yard. Time went by, real estate prices rose, and people who had just paid a couple of million dollars for their home moved onto the street, some of whom made clear that they did not appreciate having to look down on this “shack.” Not good for neighbor relations. Another family from Utah bought a newly built home, bland and over-sized on the small lot, for their vacation home. They weren’t around for the summertime block parties or December progressive dinners we traditionally held. Change had come, and it was painful.
Such Change has come to Laguna, of course. Bob Chapman, Broker Associate with Coldwell Banker Realty who joined the Laguna Beach Board of Realtors in 1991, pointed out that the number of home sales closed in the years 2011-2020 totaled 3,939, according to the California Regional Multiple Listing Service (CRMLS). That’s an average of 394 changes in ownership per year. Chapman said in a telephone interview, “It’s the nature of change in beach communities that we do have both primary residences and vacation homes – which you may not have in places like Irvine, Laguna Niguel, or Mission Viejo—that may cause our change to be more dramatic.” Chapman also made the point that the nearly 4,000 new residents (note the number does not include sales outside the MLS nor does it identify locals who sold and bought homes within Laguna) may bring a different perspective than that of long-time residents’.
Yet most of us would agree that both visitors and new residents come here for the town’s ambiance, its charm—a quality that locals have long sought to protect against change. In fact the town, quite spectacularly in my opinion, has successfully resisted much of the change that has swept through Orange County. Consider the greenbelt surrounding the city’s outskirts. There’s a notable shift in the environment as you drive Laguna Canyon Road out of the concrete desert paving much of the inland valley beyond us, or cruise Coast Highway past an oceanfront where development is limited to 36-feet high, a testament to the work that individuals like James Dilley, Arnold Hano, and the people of Village Laguna did in the face of formidable forces of change. These days, the current acrimony in town has much to do with the forces for Change that some, such as Liberate Laguna, seek in the name of progress and property rights.
Time, and the change that comes with it, have brought Laguna Beach an identity crisis. You can see this is the very names attached to our town: Its historic identity as a “village,” defined as “a small community in a rural area,” can still be found in the name of the preservationist organization Village Laguna. I accept that Laguna as too large any more to be considered a village, but for sure I see it as a “town,” defined as “populated areas with fixed boundaries and a local government.” The official seal of Laguna Beach, however, states that it is a “city,” defined as “an incorporated municipality with local government.” That lumps Laguna in with places like New York and Los Angeles, which doesn’t feel at all right.
So, do we want to be known as a town or a city? Do we want to go the way of our neighbor to the north and become Newport Beach South? Or do we have the imagination and creativity to adapt to change while honoring our blessed landscape of hills, canyons, and beaches and our unique history in Orange County? I say the latter is worth striving for.
Jean is a Laguna Beach resident and member of the Third Street Writers.
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