Laguna Changed My Life
“Oh, those new people, they don’t understand Laguna.” I’ve heard that accusation, sometimes from some of us long-timers who have become battle-scarred working to preserve open space, keep buildings in village scale, and protect our artistic heritage. But I’ve also heard from those very “new people” a chorus of appreciation, and the testimonial: “Laguna changed my life!”
“How?” I wondered. “I would never have been involved in community groups, meeting people, finding ways to help people who need it in my previous life,” one woman emphasized. Laguna’s not structured—if we see something that needs to be done, we get the appropriate groups to take it on, or just form a new group. It seems Laguna must have more nonprofits per capita than most other towns.
I walked out to my parking lot yesterday to talk with a neighbor and met someone new (a third generation Lagunan) who has returned after years away. “Yes, some complain it’s changed too much, but look at this. It’s beautiful. I can walk my dog safely and meet my friends too…there’s the open space all around us. Our community had the foresight to preserve it. It’s remarkable. I marvel every morning as I look out at a beautiful day ahead that we are so fortunate.”
But perhaps all this goodness and appreciation has a downside. Have we have already made Laguna Beach out to be too nice? Everyone wants to come here. It’s getting too crowded. Prices have gone up. Housing is not close to affordable. People who have been here a long time working to keep it nice are accused of being selfish NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) because they eschew intensification and loss of neighborhood character.
The proposed solution by some advocates of more building is to foster YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard), people who are supportive of more housing regardless of its impact, even on themselves. The theory is that building more housing will lower prices and make it possible for more people to afford homes.
Developers and the state see big barriers to more housing happening without intervention. They want to dictate to local governments how to provide more housing, overruling local design and density restrictions.
Indy columnist Michael Ray’s solution to the barriers is to silence all the selfish NIMBYs (which he equates with old people) and mute the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) so that development can proceed as quickly as possible.
Orange County Register columnist Joe Mathews says that “protecting community character is the anthem of California’s religion of obstruction.” He accuses community character protectors of posing as “righteous neighborhood activists” who victimize the have-nots.
Should we feel guilty about all our efforts to appreciate our exceptional setting and build what many would argue is a model community? One which took the initiative to direct its own destiny—in forming an art colony (instead of a beach fun zone), keep buildings at village scale (instead of promoting high rise buildings), preserve the Greenbelt (instead of allowing a blanket of urbanization at our doorstep)? We plead not guilty.
Rather than denouncing those who have contributed to the building of our community over all these years as obstructionists, we should look to them and to ourselves, the community supporters and activists, to help solve the affordability crisis, so that solutions will be found that will work in Laguna.
Laguna construction and land costs are such that development professionals point out that new housing units will not be affordable unless they are subsidized. If a well-rounded community of artists, teachers, service professionals, young and old is important to us, and I think it is, we should be willing to find ways of providing it, including subsidies, a housing foundation and housing management. Rather than to be overwhelmed by standard solutions from the state, we can be innovative in this, just as we have been with the other past challenges.
Laguna has not only changed our lives, it has the potential to inspire other lives and communities. Laguna has changed us, and it can also change the world.
Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and member of the City Council.