Laguna’s Big Lie
Laguna has its own big lie. This one has been around for 30 years, even though we have heard more of it since the election of 2018. That lie? That Laguna’s environmentalists are the root of our community’s problems—and they should be quashed at every turn.
How did this happen? A combination of developer pressures and party politics.
There were two giant victories in the past 50 years—Laguna voters expressed their deep support for preserving the character of the town and preserving natural open space with the passing of the anti-high rise initiative in 1971 and the $20 million Laguna Canyon bond issue in 1990. In the 1970s and 1980s supporters of those goals were elected to our city council: Roy Holm, Charlie Boyd, Phyllis Sweeney, Carl Johnson, Sally Bellerue, Jon Brand, Dan Kenney, and Bobbie Minkin. Again in 1990 an environmental council was elected—Lida Lenney champion for preserving Laguna Canyon, Bob Gentry, gay rights activist, and this columnist, environmental planner. They joined Neil Fitzpatrick, businessman, open space supporter, and realtor Martha Collison, a moderate voice. By and large it was a harmonious council under the stewardship of city manager Ken Frank. Even though the council positions are supposed to be non-partisan, the political party organizations keep close tabs on the party registration of members of local governments county-wide. An all-Democratic council in Laguna Beach? Orange County Republicans were concerned.
Pressures on the council increased with the opportunity to redevelop Treasure Island in South Laguna. There could be bed tax income with a hotel, but there were mobile home park residents to consider. Richard Hall, who had gained control of the property, vowed to change the council as needed to achieve his goals of closing the park and redeveloping it.
In 1992, the council gained two Republicans, Kathleen Blackburn and Wayne Peterson, when Fitzpatrick and Collison didn’t seek reelection.
Then in October 1993 there was the tragic and frightening fire. Over 400 houses went up in flames. The homes of City Manager Frank, Assistant City Manager Cindy King, and Gentry were in ashes. There were trailers, equipment, emergency personnel and reporters with their cameras swarming at the Main Beach staging area. Politicians from all over the state circulated for their television appearances, including Gov. Pete Wilson. Peterson disappeared into a trailer with Wilson. Shortly after that, the governor was speaking on national television, accusing our city of being at fault in the fire. Television coverage seemed to provide no opportunity for our council to assure our residents of city concern and action.
It’s no wonder that residents were angry at the first meeting we had with them a few days later. Reflecting Wilson’s comments, they seemed to have bought into the idea that the fire was somehow our city’s fault, and in turn they blamed the council—even though city policies were not at fault. ater county reports found that earlier provision of air support was the critical factor that could have reduced or even eliminated the damage from the fire. We tried to do everything we could to help the residents who had lost their homes.
Despite these efforts, the fire was perfect ammunition for the development and anti-environmental council forces in 1994, when I was running for re-election. This was the first time the untrue hit piece blaming me for lack of water during the firefighting efforts was used against me. I lost by about 250 votes.
When I ran for City Council in 2018, Liberate Laguna PAC quoted the same false hit piece, while supporting then-council candidates Peter Blake and Sue Kempf. In his recent column Liberate Laguna PAC founder Michael Ray cited it again. The Independent published a small correction in last week’s paper stating that I hadn’t voted no on the Alta Laguna reservoir—the water source I was accused of blocking. The reservoir site was part of Alta Laguna park I had been paid to design and I was required to recuse myself from voting on the reservoir for two years. My recusals did not affect the progress of the reservoir project, which at the time of the fire, was in planning phases. It could not have been in service in time to provide water to fight the 1993 Laguna fire. The vote to approve the reservoir was in October 1994 and I voted yes along with three other councilmembers.
With the election of 1994, Hall’s promise to change the council was fulfilled. Laguna Beach has not had an environmental-majority council since. Blake has pounded away with the Laguna lie—disparaging our environmental organizations and activists, constantly blaming us for whatever dissatisfaction members of the public have about our city. Even without a majority environmental vote for the past 30 years apparently, those dissatisfactions are still our fault!
Yet we don’t give up. We speak, come up with ideas to bring projects forward, try to make our city more beautiful with trees, plantings and gardens, push to maintain the character of our town so that we don’t become another Dana Point, and try to represent the interests of residents and their neighborhoods.
We need to abandon the lie. Setting groups against each other with false accusations defies the beauty that surrounds us and these conflicts seriously affect our quality of life. With good will, harmonious moving forward is still possible.
Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She’s also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.View Our User Comment Policy