Village Matters: What is Laguna?

It’s summer and the trolleys are running. Riding them and being under cover, being inconspicuous eavesdroppers, we can witness impressions of our town and of ourselves,  residents playing tourists.

“They say that if you live here, you go to the beach all the time for the first few months, and then it gets old and you hardly go anymore. That wouldn’t happen to me!  I would never get tired of the beach,” attested Tan and Sandy.

Skipping off the trolley, our recent beach convert, 8-year-old Michael, zoomed over to the water’s edge, fascinated with the unpredictable waves splashing at his feet and suddenly immersing him to his waist.  A compelling natural wonder was playing with him.  He could be a child.

If you’ve lived here all your life, perhaps you are still going to the beach every time the surf’s up. Or maybe your local business takes all your time and you are dealing with the ebb and flow of visitors, missing out on those watery tides yourself.  Or you’re busy with life and just knowing the beach and ocean are here and seeing it from a distance is enough to feel connected.

What is Laguna to you?  It’s more than the ocean and beach, important as that water side is.  Is it the quaint neighborhoods, the neighborliness, the schools and active families, the arts, the history, the feeling of uniqueness, the active organizations that take on challenges of helping those in need? Or is it just a beautiful location, a place to live quietly and feel you’re on vacation?

What is Laguna to me?  I see our town as battles won and battles lost. Before we were annexed, I felt that leaving South Laguna was like escaping the battlefield. We had fought to save our hillsides for so long. Project proposals came one after another. It fell to us in the South Laguna Civic Association to push for good decisions as we trekked to Santa Ana time after time.

As a visitor to Laguna Beach, I could walk Heisler Park or downtown not thinking of a case that had just come to the planning commission or some violation of our general plan.  I could just enjoy the balmy air, the scenic ocean and join those happy people rejoicing in this little bit of paradise.

Then South Laguna became part of Laguna Beach. I was appointed to the Planning Commission, then elected to the City Council. Even though I’m no longer in city government, I’m still involved in issues and projects that are being considered.  Now issues are everywhere I look.

A newcomer, gazing on South Laguna’s Villa Mar Vista, says, “How did they ever allow that project? Look at it! It’s not a home. It’s way too big!”  My heart sinks. I feel responsible. I explain, “We fought that project for years. We gave it all we had. But there was still a majority at the City Council to approve it.” We appealed to the Coastal Commission. Neighbors Willa Gupta and Debbie Hertz and my husband, Alfredo Careaga, made a topographic model in our garage. We flew to Santa Rosa to testify. The model made clear all the watercourses that flowed through the property and how steep it was. The commission ruled against the project. For a brief moment we were victorious. Then the Pacific Legal Foundation sued and the commission’s denial did not stand. The project went ahead.

The developer thought he had won. But with the project nearly complete, he lost the property to foreclosure. Contractors didn’t get paid. The project had all the impacts we predicted. The house has never been lived in.  Everybody lost.

It’s still there and we will live with it forever.

Someone new just sees that huge structure inappropriately looming over the village.  A village that is quaint and lovely if you just look the other way.

New residents love where they have landed. They still think Laguna is very special. But they are mystified and frustrated. Are they welcome? Do they fit here? Heavens! How does the system work? When will it make sense?

They should know that there have been battles won too. The greenbelt is a huge victory, 20,000 acres of preserved open space.  A citizen’s initiative prevented high-rise buildings. Parks were created, streetscapes enhanced, community garden planted… You can add your own favorite accomplishments. To the visitor or someone recently arrived these are just there. Do they know what it took to make these happen?

What is Laguna? We each see only a part of the whole. It will start to make sense as we immerse ourselves in the community experience. Compared to a vacation, being a part of community accomplishments offers a deeper sense of joy, more compelling than an ocean view, more engaging than a splash in the sand.


Landscape architect Ann Christoph served on the City Council.

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