Opinion: South Laguna Is Part of the Greenbelt

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By Bob Borthwick

Last month, the Laguna Greenbelt sent a letter that was mailed to all Lagunans. Through an oversight, the letter failed to identify the hillsides above South Laguna as part of what we now refer to as our 22,000-acre Greenbelt. This column is intended to correct that oversight and is an opportunity to describe the important role of South Laguna in helping to protect the beautiful open space that surrounds our town.

Legendary landscape architect Fred Lang was a South Laguna resident and served on the Laguna Greenbelt Board of Directors, along with Jim Dilley, in the formative years of open space preservation in the 1970’s. At that time, the community of South Laguna was unincorporated in County of Orange territory and the County offered little or no resistance to development proposals on the steep hillsides above the village. In 1971, Lang hired Ann Christoph, a recent landscape architecture graduate from the University of Michigan, to work with a subcommittee of the South Laguna Civic Association (SLCA) to prepare a General Plan for South Laguna which Lang donated to the County of Orange. The subcommittee included Alvin Louis Wiehle, architect and planner; Fred Pratley, geologist; transportation planner and UCI professor, Pete Fielding; Dick Clark, publicist; and Joan Groettrup, secretary.

The General Plan identified topographic and geologic constraints and the botanical rarities on these steep hillsides. This was the first natural resource-based land use plan in the County of Orange. The hillsides were proposed to be dedicated as open space with small clusters of development accessed from Pacific Island Drive set back from the edge at the top of the hills.  Organized by SLCA, hundreds of South Lagunans trekked to Santa Ana to support the plan.  After massive resistance from development interests, the hillside preservation concept was adopted, although the development “clusters” were expanded significantly. Those hillsides south of Aliso Creek were dedicated to the County of Orange and are now part of the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, with public trail access from above and below. For one large hillside parcel, Fred Lang and others purchased the property to prevent it from being developed and it remains today as open space

When South Laguna was annexed to Laguna Beach in 1987, the South Laguna hillside preservation concept was accepted in County and Coastal Plans but acquisition was not complete.

North of Aliso Creek hundreds of houses and condominiums had been proposed to cover the mountainous area, accessed from a wide road winding up the hill from Coast Highway near Ruby’s. South Lagunans’ objection based on the General Plan defeated those proposals time after time, setting the stage for preservation as natural open space. In 2010, a key 96-acre parcel was given to Laguna Beach. In 2015, the remaining 151 acres were acquired for open space preservation/mitigation by the Orange County Transportation Authority, which named it Pacific Horizon Preserve.

These beautiful South Laguna hillsides are protected, thanks to Lang and the other visionary environmentalists in South Laguna who saved this essential Greenbelt open space framing the southern boundary of Laguna Beach.

Frederick M. Lang Park was created in 1991 in South Laguna to honor his legacy as an environmentalist, naturalist, and landscape architect.

Bob is a Laguna Beach resident and landscape architect.

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