Opinion: Village Matters

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Sometimes the Land Speaks Loudly

ann christoph

It took more than a century, but finally the voice of the land was heard.

A couple of weeks ago I hiked a mountaintop trail in the “Pacific Horizon Preserve,” a 200-acre property on the north side of Aliso Canyon that has been purchased for preservation by the Orange County Transportation Authority. Its preservation is mitigation for habitat losses related to road expansion projects elsewhere in the County. Biologist Karlin Marsh termed this area “the most significant of South Laguna’s open spaces” in her 1992 report for the City of Laguna Beach. Fellow botanist Fred Roberts observed that this area “almost seems designed by nature as a rare plant preserve.” But over the years many were not hearing this message. There were many ambitious ideas for this property and other nearby parcels—more than 300 acres of mountainous land altogether.

Back in the 1970s, Juanita Hagopian was the first of many development advocates we were to encounter. This petite, blonde realtor was unforgettable as she tried to patiently explain to Fred Lang, Al Wiehle, and me why there had to be a highway up Aliso Canyon. “You can’t make people go all the way around. Laguna needs another access to the coast,” she insisted. The County had already mapped the road she wanted, a six-lane highway through Ben Brown’s golf course connecting the Ziggurat and beyond to Aliso Beach. Not only that, but the County wanted to extend Alta Laguna Boulevard from the segment at Top of the World north along the ridgetop to El Toro Road and south through Arch Beach Heights and Portofino down the mountain to join that projected Aliso Canyon Road. It’s suspected that Hagopian represented owners of the mountain that would be accessed by the roads she was pushing.

The property certainly appeared on maps to be well located for development. But ultimately, seeing the land in person and learning about its topographic and access constraints would lead to another conclusion.

Lang, Wiehle and I, with the South Laguna Civic Association, were preparing a general plan for South Laguna and the hillsides were our focus. Unfortunately for that enterprising realtor, we were not in favor of chopping up the hills to build steep roads—even wider versions of Nyes Place. Lang had a preliminary sense of the value of the vegetation/habitat there, and we were assembling more scientific verification. Preservation of the hillsides as part of the Laguna Greenbelt was our focus. Greenbelt advocates and other environmentalists pressured the County to delete those very roads from its master plan. Violet Brown vehemently opposed anything that would harm the serene golf course in Aliso Canyon named for her late husband.

It was clear that getting an approval for the ideas Hagopian was promoting was not going to be easy, and she was certainly far from any sales or real estate commissions. We never saw her again. But the deletion of Aliso Creek Road and Alta Laguna extension did not stop the speculation. Our plan showed most of the mountain preserved in open space but other real estate investors and their engineers would counter with proposals for a road up Hobo Canyon and extensions of Balboa to give access to hundreds of houses and condominiums enveloping that extremely steep and rocky terrain. The many drawings, supporting documents, and public meetings to review these proposals produced no approvals, even at the normally developer-friendly County of Orange.

How did this land come into private ownership in the first place? Several federal laws provided for homesteading on what was termed government land. Leon A. Goff was granted 237 acres in 1891 and 1896. Eighty acres of that grant was a timber culture claim based on the grove of eucalyptus he planted at what is now the Scout Camp at the Ranch. Who could have predicted over a century ago that that grove was the only “development” that would ever occur on that property? Oceanward of Leon’s land was other homesteaded land owned by Leon’s father Franklin Goff and cousin Lulu Goff, and the last homestead in Laguna Beach—80 acres that was granted to Russell Wallace in 1916. Landlocked and extremely steep, it depended on neighboring parcels for any possible development future.

The Goffs’ parcels had been acquired by Blanche and Florence Dolph, Pennsylvania coal mine heiresses who formed the Dolphin Co. (which had developed Lagunita in 1938). In 1943, the remaining 327 acres were purchased by Dr. Paul and Marie Esslinger—for $20,000 according to the Santa Ana Register. This was in the midst of a depressed coastal real estate market caused by the fear of imminent Japanese invasion of the coast, and daughter Marilyn Esslinger Cook explained there were many liens on the land that had to be cleared. The lower reaches of the Esslinger’s property became St. Catherine’s and Aliso Schools, the Methodist Church, the Laguna Terrace Mobile home park, the shopping center where CVS and Gelson’s are, as well as all the homes and condominiums above. Still the Esslingers hoped the rest of the property could be developed and it was the efforts of Marie Esslinger that kept alive the hope of ambitious proposals for that mountainous landscape. Eventually though, the undeveloped Esslinger land was purchased by Driftwood Properties LLC, a company related to the same interests that had developed Montage.

It’s complicated, but Driftwood became saddled with the responsibility to restore habitat on areas that had been graded without permits, and they offered to dedicate their land to a public agency for open space in 2010. The former Wallace 80-acre homestead had been given to the City by Daryoush Mahboubi Fardi when Ken Frank was still city manager.
Thus with the OCTA purchase the entire area so appreciatively described by botanists, and so protected by local residents, is a natural preserve.

Sometimes the land speaks loudly and with our help people listen.

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

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