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Laguna Beach

South Laguna Community Garden Park reserve fund gets six-month extension


The reserve fund for the South Laguna Community Garden Park was granted a temporary stay following a vote this week.

City Council unanimously approved the budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year during the regular meeting on Tuesday (June 15). The budget item included a number of salaries, employee association agreements, and projects, but the hottest topic during the discussion was the fund earmarked for the community garden. 

The park in-lieu fund currently has a reserve of $500,000 for the South Laguna Community Garden; it was set to expire on June 30 before council unanimously approved the extension on Tuesday (in a separate vote from the overall budget vote).

Council members agreed to the extension after hearing that there were some encouraging developments in the effort to contact the property owner in Saudi Arabia and gauge his interest of selling the property.

Mayor Bob Whalen suggested a limited extension of approximately six months to let the recent developments play out. It’s not going to be indefinite, Whalen said, later adding a deadline of January 15. 

“You’re either going to have a willing seller or you’re not,” Whalen said, “and if you don’t, then I think the community in South Laguna really needs to get serious and look at some other alternatives to this space.”

The funds came from a sale in South Laguna and were earmarked for the garden in order to be re-invested back into the community. The city has been very patient with this and kept its promise, which was to keep the reserve until June 30, 2021, Whalen explained. 

“We have done exactly what we said we’d do,” he said. 

While he previously thought there wasn’t a reason to continue the reserve because there was no willing seller, it now appears (based on paperwork he’s reviewed and conversations he’s had), there may be some interest in selling the property, Whalen said.

South Laguna Mary overall

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The South Laguna Community Garden Park was the hot topic of the city council’s budget discussion

More than a dozen public speakers commented on the item, all in support of continuing the funding. Nearly twice as many people wrote letters to council in support of funding the garden, and at least one opposed.

Proponents argued that the garden isn’t just for green thumbs, people enjoy casually visiting the park or eating their lunch at the tables. It’s a place to visit with friends or meet new ones, several speakers agreed. 

Others pointed out that the garden isn’t just for local South Laguna residents either, and that several out-of-town gardeners own plots. Community gardens are common, but most aren’t open to the public as a park, like the South Laguna Garden, Ann Christoph said. They use it as an opportunity to educate visitors on environmental principles and gardening tips, she said.

The gardeners all pitch in and commit to the maintenance and care of the park, Christoph said. 

The general plan also encourages community gardens, she added.

“The council should do everything you can to support it,” she said. “I hope you will join us as partners in this project.”

The community garden has taken on an even more important role over the past year, Carly Andrews said. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown was difficult for a lot of people, many who were just looking for a little bit of joy.

“Things seemed pretty dark for a lot of us,” Andrews said, “but there were glimmers of hope and, for me and many others, the South Laguna Community Garden Park was a bright spot.”

People shared food, left inspirational notes on the bulletin board, watered and planted for those who didn’t feel safe in public yet, offered produce to people in need, children played, and people took photos of the flowers and landscape. 

“The garden gave us hope when we really needed it,” Andrews said.

Open green spaces are crucial to people’s well-being, she added.

South Laguna seedling giveaway

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Submitted photo

A seedling giveaway at South Laguna Community Garden Park

Amy Webster, a Chicago native who relocated to Laguna Beach earlier this year, said she applied for a plot before she even moved to the coastal town. She got the call of approval while en route to Laguna.

“Arriving there was like a dream,” she said. “I was thrilled.”

Living a healthy, “green” life benefits both people and the environment. A community garden like this shows that the Laguna Beach community actually care for each other, she added. 

“There is no benefit greater than that of growing a natural, organic, green garden for the community,” Webster said. “It is a tremendous benefit to the community; it speaks to the spirit of Laguna Beach that brought me and other people here.”

Christoph explained that they have approximately $200,000 in donations in an account, a bequest for $25,000 that’s contingent on a formalized deal with the landowner, and a commitment from a local foundation that’s promised a significant amount of funds when a deal is in place. 

“None of that money gets spent until there’s a deal,” Christoph said. 

Several speakers noted that there have been developments in connecting with the landowner in hopes purchasing the property. 

Longtime local real estate broker Gayle Waite said she’s been involved in reaching out to the owner of the parcel.

Waite has been in direct contact with the property owner’s former real estate agent. The former agent, who represented the property owner when he purchased the land, has stated that the owner “has an interest in selling the property.”

Also, Waite added, someone in Saudi Arabia has been in contact with the owner and “more of an interest has been expressed.”

“There have been recent developments that lead us to believe there might be some movement in the direction of him selling the parcel,” Waite confirmed.

Having a down payment is critical in achieving a negotiation to purchase it, she said.

“We are truly believing that perhaps this is the year where he might be willing to sell,” Waite said.

People, herself included, are very ready to contribute, Waite said. People really start pitching in when there is a commitment on the table, she said, noting specific examples with previous projects.

Councilmember George Weiss said he’s never been fully, 100 percent supportive the garden, but there were a lot of heartfelt supporters who spoke during public comment and sent emails, and that’s what persuaded him to agree to an extension.

It will give the garden organizers one last chance to get the seemingly interested property owner to sell, he said.

“I think we ought to give it every shot,” Weiss said. “South Laguna deserves it.”

South Laguna Laguna Mary entrance

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council debated whether or not to extend the reserve fund for the South Laguna Community Garden this week

Although not everyone was on board with the idea of continuing the reserve fund.

For a variety of reasons, both Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf and Councilmember Peter Blake initially opposed extending the timeline. 

The location is flawed, Blake said, it’s dirty and gathers brake dust on PCH. The money raised so far isn’t enough to purchase the property, he added.

“We’ve given it enough time, I think that we need to look for a better location,” Blake said. “We are so far from having a seller. This notion that the money is there…the money’s not there.”

They’ve had plenty of time to raise the money and buy the property. It’s been 12 years and things haven’t come together, he said.

“I’m tired of this coming up. It’s divisive as hell, it’s political as hell,” Blake said. “I want to put this thing to bed.”

He’d be open-minded to the idea and tempted to vote for it, but only if garden organizers came in ready with a deal on the table.

“I’m not anti-garden, I’m just anti that location, I’m anti continuing on with this political thing,” Blake said.

Kempf commented that this could open a can of worms with other specific projects. There are also a lot of people who don’t like the garden, she added.

She raised some concerns about the “hybrid” model that the city doesn’t own the entire property. It raises questions about who manages the site, how decisions are made, and who has control. 

“I don’t think it’s a good use of funds,” Kempf said. “I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do with taxpayer money.”

Blake shifted after getting assurance from Whalen that after the six months the extension ends – full stop – and it’s not brought up for discussion again. 

“If in six months…this isn’t sold, done deal, funded, and ready to go,” with the attorney’s approval and a clear direction and use of the funds, Blake said…if at that point it gets “buried and never brought up again…no more extensions…I would vote for it.”

“Well, I think that’s what I’m saying,” Whalen replied. In six months, if there’s no deal, “the reserve would go away.”

They could return and ask for another reserve at some point in the future, Whalen clarified.

“Done deal,” in this context, meaning they have a contract with the property owner to sell the parcel to them and they have the funding in place, Whalen explained.

Ultimately, under that condition, the vote was unanimous approval.


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