Open-Space Star Steps into the Spotlight


“50 Years of Preservation,”a documentary which chronicles the history of the Laguna Greenbeltand reveals the conflicts that influenced Laguna Beach,will premier at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 24 at the Susi Q Community Center, 380 Third St.

The star of the film, Jim Dilley, a bookstore owner and founder of the open-space advocacy group, motivated thousands of people to support the creation of what evolved into the 22,000-acre wilderness preserve surrounding Laguna Beach.

Highlights from the film include Greenbelt president Elisabeth Brown describingher first encounter with Dilley and Scott Ferguson’srecollections of Dilley as a negotiator, who won the support of local and county elected officials. Greenbelt vice presidents Norm Grossman and Ron Chilcote also make cameo appearances.

A view of the preserved land from Top of the World in the Laguna Beach greenbelt. Photo by Charles Michael Murray.
A view of the preserved land from Top of the World in the Laguna Beach greenbelt. Photo by Charles Michael Murray.

City Council member Toni Isemandescribes how local resident Betty Heckel enticed her to join the board, and later how she chained herself to a bulldozer with a bike lock and was hauled away in a sheriff’s white bus.

Other milestones, such as the protest mural in Laguna Canyon devised by Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield, known as The Tell and the protest walk to the site organized by Harry Huggins and Charles Michael Murray on Nov. 11, 1989, also are spotlighted in the film.

Like all documentaries, assembling the story, its details and imagery required detective work, said Huggins, who wrote, directed and edited the film with fellow board member Ron Chilcote.

Altogether, the film required over 1,200 hours of meetings, videography, and editorial sessions by Chilcote, Huggins and Murray, who provided video effects and editing.

Twelve interviews required obtaining complementing physical evidence of what had transpired, Huggins said. “We chose to develop six ‘blocks’ of video in an unabridged format and produce a consolidated story for presentation for public viewing,” said Huggins, who also filmed the footage and narrates.

Among the details they uncovered was a surprising designation of the hills, canyons and creeks around Laguna Beach as “discards” from the early cattle ranches handed down from Spanish land grants. Land once rejected as unsuitable for cattle now looks like an “emerald necklace” of 22,000 acres partly encircling Laguna, Huggins said.

Those taking up Dilley’s tale tell of an all out war against reckless transportation planning and the future use of lands in and around Laguna Beach, Huggins said.

Open space advocate James Dilley testifying at a City Council hearing. Photo courtesy of Greenbelt.
Open space advocate James Dilley testifying at a City Council hearing.
Photo courtesy of Greenbelt.

Laguna Beach would have become a freeway interchange with Broadway and Forest exits and on-ramps if not for the timely formation of a Citizens Town Planning Association. Like many other communities in 1965, Laguna had not yet adopted a General Plan with all the zoning, resource protections and building codes that help preserve the town’s character.

Huggins said a cast of professionals in planning, architecture, and government-specialist consultants assembled an effective team to oppose the grandiose transportation plans.

Dilley provided the inspiration to fight against outside intrusion and succeeded in securing the concept approvals with county and local officials that set the course for the protections enjoyed today, Huggins said.


Other showings of the documentary are planned over the coming months. Visit lagunagreenbelt.orgto view the trailer.


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