Open-Space Advocate Merrilees Dies at 83

Jeannette York Merrilees
Jeannette York Merrilees

Jeannette York Merrilees, age 83, died on Oct. 14, 2013. She was a resident of Laguna Beach since 1973.

Jeannette was born (Jeannette Faas York) on March 18, 1930, in Newark, N.Y., the second child of Dr. and Mrs. Edwin Whittier York.  Her father died when she was still an infant. Jeannette was raised by her widowed mother, who never remarried, worked and sacrificed to provide her children with opportunities she never had, and provided the role model as a strong, capable woman for Jeannette.

Jeannette attended Smith College, majoring in government and religion where she was influenced by the non-violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and got involved in politics for the first time. Her religious upbringing and graduate studies helped develop a strong social conscience.  She spent a summer teaching school in a remote Alaskan native village. After graduating from Smith in 1952, she attended McCormick Seminary in Chicago to study religion. She was awarded a teaching fellowship from the Ford Foundation that credentialed her to teach elementary school in La Jolla, Calif., and at the San Felipe Pueblo in New Mexico.

After her children were grown, she graduated from the Western States School of Law, passed the California State Bar and practiced law.

Merrilees’  passion was protecting the public interest. In the city of Orange, she worked with renowned urban planner Dr. Arthur Gallion to improve the general plan, and remind civic leaders of the need for public open spaces.  She was one of the first advocates for creating a parks commission for the city of Orange.

After moving to Laguna Beach in 1973, she worked with Helen Pines to save a portion of Crescent Bay Point from development and establish a public park that continues to be a popular local destination.  When a luxury resort was planned for Crystal Cove State Beach in 1991, she was the first to advocate for preservation of the beachside cottages as vacation rentals.  When it was proposed that the cottages be restored for use by foundations and special groups, she fought to maximize their use for the vacationing public, as they are successfully used today. Never shy about opposing powerful interests, she was a tireless advocate for public coastal access, the preservation of the Laguna greenbelt, and was a strong opponent of the coastal Toll Road (but you can’t win them all).  Whether it was for the fields in Orange, the rustic cottages at Crystal Cove, or the point of land at Crescent Bay, if there were an opportunity for public enjoyment of natural resources, she banded with others to protect them.

Her passion for public advocacy was passed down to all three of her children.  Craig advocates for workers rights with the Longshoreman’s Union in San Francisco, Neil advocates for parks as a member of the San Mateo County Parks Commission, and Alison shapes public policy as legislative staff in the California State Assembly.

Merrilees loved and was fiercely supportive of her children and grandchildren, and she adored her husband Ed. She worked to leave the world a better place than she found it, and we will remember her when we visit the parks and open spaces she helped preserve.

Merrilees is survived by her husband of more than 59 years, Edward of Laguna Beach; her brother Edwin York (Marguerite) of Milford, N.J.; three children, Craig Merrilees (Diana Cohn) of Sausalito, Neil Merrilees (Jennifer) of Half Moon Bay and Alison Merrilees (Michael Paiva) of Sacramento; as well as four grandchildren Jenna and Annika Merrilees, Andrew and Abigail Paiva.

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  1. I consider a honor and a joy to have known Jeannette as a friend. When I went to seminary as a grandmother of five, she was right there encouraging me. She shared many wonderful stories of her work in Alaska with us. Jeannette and Ed are GOOD people, the kind we need more of in this country. May God give you peace, Jeannette, and may all of us rejoice with the inspiring memories we have of you. Much love from Will and Mary


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