Opinion: Village Matters

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Shaping Our Future

ann christoph

We shape our environment and it shapes us. Here in Laguna our coastal mountains and rocky coast have sent strong messages telling us how to live here from the very beginning of European and American settlement. Our landscape inspired artists to create beautiful appreciative images, and residents to create homemade and fanciful cottages and houses. Neighborhoods filled in the lots that various subdividers drew. No matter how straight and confining their street designs, or how winding their ways into the hillsides, individual decisions for each lot with each house taking advantage of its setting in its own unique way made a varied streetscape. We call this village character.

We embellished the landscape with plantings of trees—the Eucalyptus groves of the early homesteaders, and the tree planting as a result of the Woman’s Club campaign to make Laguna Beach “the Paradise of the Pacific.” Seven hundred donated Monterey cypress trees were distributed free on Arbor Day in 1925. They sponsored a tree planting program given by landscape architect Florence Yoch, daughter of Hotel Laguna’s early owner Joseph Yoch, who recommended planting thousands of trees suitable for our town. (See page 34 and 35 of Laguna Beach and the Greenbelt, Celebrating a Treasured Historic Landscape). Fred Lang and Harry Lawrence of the Laguna Beach Beautification Council carried on this tradition. The community advocated for parks—Bluebird, Main Beach, Crescent Bay, South Laguna Village Green are here because of those citizen efforts. We pushed for open space and now we have the 22,000-acre Laguna Greenbelt. Miraculous. Trees, parks and open space are a natural part of the quilt of village character.

The makers of that quilt, the people who came and stayed because they were entranced with the special quality of the environment, became equally appreciative of the charm and rewards that come with working with neighbors toward a beneficial community goal. That community spirit is village character too.

With every generation there are decisions to be made and there is the delicate balance to be achieved between responding to the constraints and beauty of the overall village character and needs and desires of individual owners of a piece of the quilt.

Now instead of a philosophy of planting and loving trees there is an emphasis on limiting their growth, reducing planting and removing trees, especially tall ones (that are in someone’s view). The argument that most of Laguna’s trees are “not native” is used to justify many removals, especially of Eucalyptus. Horticulturist Catherine Pannell Waters quotes prominent ornithologists and points out that “migrating and overwintering birds have evolved to use the Laguna [and other areas’] Eucalyptus trees for shelter, food, and breeding purposes and [the trees] have become part of the natural history of the area by serving as a significant resource for Laguna’s and Orange County’s migratory and resident avian species”, as well as habitat for monarch butterflies.

When two significant groves of Eucalyptus in Dana Point (at Doheny and the former Capistrano by the Sea Hospital) were removed, numbers of “migrating and overwintering passerines in all of Dana Point plummeted along with the population of resident raptors [hawks and owls]…Monarch butterflies went from being common to being rare. They sheltered in the Eucalyptus.” We shaped nature with our homes and embellished them with plantings that nature is now relying on. Taking those trees away affects the balance, diminishing the village character we all love.

In 2014, the City commissioned an update of the Inventory of Historic Resources as the General Plan directed. Since then objections to Laguna’s historic preservation program have intensified. A mutual agreement on preserving village character has been absent, in favor of property rights arguments. In Laguna, we are buying a piece of the village character quilt, not just that patch of ground with a building on it. We all depend on everyone else to have lovely patchwork, to be helpful and generous to the community to make the whole effect work. The historic preservation component should be part of that picture, but right now it is not working. The City Council’s solution to say property owners can decide themselves if their property is a historic resource, the “owner consent” provision, satisfies the property rights proponents, but it will allow demolition at the discretion of the owner. It is not historic preservation and it does not protect village character.

It’s time to restore the balance, respond more to our lovely and unique setting, and let our environment shape us. The more we listen to what has made our community so special and work with those sensitivities the more we will be beautiful, inside and out.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.

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