Opinion: Village Matters

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The Treasurers

ann christoph

How does a columnist find inspiration?—Especially when she spends three hours in the emergency room because of a dog bite on the night before a column is due. After assuring me I would survive the dog bite the doctor was engaging, “How long have you lived here?”

“A long time, since 1971,” I replied to that oft-asked question.

“It must have been so beautiful back then, so wild…”

I think maybe he was imagining that I came with the original homesteaders in 1871. I’m not that old! “It was beautiful, but it’s beautiful now, still.” Then I thought of how it was in 1971. That was before the ridgetops, now in Laguna Niguel, were developed with condominiums and houses.

We often hiked up in the hills with Fred Lang and his botanist friends. It was more wild back then. There were vernal pools, now graded away, up at the top surrounded by the still-blooming California lilac.  We learned about the rare Dudleyas (live forever succulents) from Dave Verity of UCLA, and the importance of the southern maritime chaparral from Gordon Marsh of UC Irvine and Ted Haynes of Cal State University Fullerton.

Amid the sages, the toyons and lemonade berries is the rare Cneoridium dumosum, spice bush, which bears miniature oranges. It is the only member of the citrus family native to Orange County. I find that little fact ironic and fascinating but I pointed it out to a hiker up on the Valido trail recently and got a “Hmm.” I think he was more interested in how many steps were being tallied in his Apple watch. We weren’t counting steps in those days, we were deep breathing the scents, looking for wood rat nests (Fred’s favorite animal), and loving these richly carpeted and still preserved natural hillsides.

But it wasn’t peaceful, as I told the Doc, it was tumultuous. From the first week I started working for Fred we had planning commission and board of supervisors meetings in Santa Ana—years of them. How many afternoons sitting in those hard seats waiting for our three-minute opportunity to convince commissioners and board members from flat urban Orange County that preserving these remote hillsides was important.

There was organizing with the South Laguna Civic Association, community meetings, garage sales to raise funds for legal assistance, and on the professional side, mapping, analyzing development proposals, writing letters and producing an actual plan for South Laguna that saved most of the hillsides in open space. It was the first natural resource-based land use plan for Orange County.

If not for these efforts there would have been roads up the mountains from First Avenue (now Eagle Rock Way) and Third Avenue and the hillsides would have been graded for mobile homes, condominiums and houses.  There was no period of time without a controversy or a misguided development proposal. There were also opportunities to create more beauty and park space (South Laguna Village Green) and those required politicking too. More hard seat sitting, more persuasion, more drawings, more community creativity.  There is still no time without controversy or opportunity to make the community better.

That’s the thing. We have a treasure here. That doesn’t mean we just declare that we’re lucky and then open the box and spend what has been so carefully put there by nature and our predecessors. We are now the treasurers, the guardians. That’s our job now, to sit in the hard seats, to be inspiring and appreciative, not only keeping the decisions from going astray but putting our creativity and love into our treasure, our town, to nourish it and make it even more beautiful. Thanks, Doc.

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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