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Open Space Hero Continues to Inspire

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

It was 1989. The council chamber was filled for a citizens’ meeting about Laguna Canyon. Councilmember Lida Lenney stood tall at the front speaking from her heart, urging us to stop the Irvine Company’s Laguna Laurel project and save Laguna Canyon.

Her message: Developing the canyon, “would mean the demise of this town as we know it.”

I was in the audience, admiring her courage. She and others had formed the Laguna Canyon Conservancy in 1987. The community had analyzed the Laguna Laurel environmental documents and emphatically documented its impact, yet the county was poised to approve the development of 2,150 acres in the heart of Laguna Canyon–3200 houses, apartments and condominiums and accompanying commercial development–so many people that our district was expected to build a new elementary school out there.

At that meeting Lenney inspired us and urged us to take more public action. Shortly afterwards, in September, Lenney led a demonstration in Newport Beach, picketing the house of Don Bren, president of The Irvine Company.

Canyon advocates holding placards lined Laguna Canyon Road. The phantom (aka Toni Iseman) placed Burma Shave-type signs to get the attention of morning commuters.

“See the hills—the open space—they’ll disappear—without a trace.”

“There’s a deer—so strong—she protects the Canyon–from wrong—Bambo—lead our fight on.”

Finally, Nov. 11, 1989, the stuff of legends, thousands of canyon and open space supporters walked Laguna Canyon from the Festival to “The Tell” in what is now the James Dilley Preserve. That march stopped the forces moving the Laguna Laurel development forward. They were no longer inexorable. Had this ever happened in Orange County?

It was time to negotiate, and eventually, with Laguna voters approving a $20 million bond issue, the county contributing $10 million, grants from the state, private donations and further dedications from The Irvine Company, piece by piece the canyon was preserved. Now as we drive, hike or bike through the canyon we experience the lovely open space knowing that we have been a part of saving it forever.

Lenney inspired the activism that made it happen. As mayor and councilmember, she followed through on difficult negotiations that brought the open space preservation intent into reality. She served on the first board of directors of the Coastal Greenbelt Authority, the joint powers group that oversees the canyon greenbelt preserve, now named the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. After she retired from the council she started a book on the canyon preservation story. Then leukemia came and Lida was gone, all too soon.

We’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the walk next week, and at last there will be a ceremony recognizing Lenney’s contribution. At the Nix Nature Center at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11, we will dedicate a bench in her honor. It is a thoughtful tribute, but it’s not enough. It should be something large, lasting and a part of the canyon that can never go away.

In 1990 Dana Parsons recorded Lenney’s thoughts in his Los Angeles Times column.

“I think we’re making history. Environmental history in Orange County. What’s happening is very significant.”

“At one point I thought it was my leadership. Then I realized it wasn’t any one person. It’s not even a group of people. It’s the canyon itself that gets a grip on you.”

“There are certain values that are eternal. The canyon is one of them, and family is another.”

 

Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former member of the Laguna Beach City Council.

 

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