Roofing contractor Gary Borka scowled in disgust as he watched more than 100 environmentalists rallying Sunday in Laguna Beach to save Laguna Canyon from development.
The 28-year-old Irvine man said he, for one, wants to see the pristine canyon bulldozed and filled with nice new homes. Borka scoffed at environmentalists' assertions that the canyon ought to be preserved in its natural state.
"Laguna Canyon needs to be built up," he said. "There's a lot of good places to live back there."
For all his fervor, Borka's view was hardly the prevailing one at the rally on Laguna's Main Beach. Many in the crowd of about 1,000 spectators bought "Save the Canyon" T-shirts and balloons from rally organizers, then signed form letters protesting Caltrans' planned widening of Laguna Canyon Road.
Opponents of the widening fear it would be a precursor to development of the entire canyon. The Irvine Co., which owns much of the canyon, already has drawn up development plans contingent on road widening to support more traffic.
"I think what you're seeing today is the tip of the iceberg (in terms of public support)," Laguna Beach Mayor Dan Kenney, whose City Council also opposes the widening, said at the rally. "Anyone who has driven down Laguna Canyon Road wants to see it preserved."
The state Department of Transportation's proposal is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before the California Coastal Commission. The Laguna Canyon Conservancy, a nonprofit group of about 150 area residents who oppose any canyon development, plans to bus supporters to the commission's hearing in Marina del Rey.
The conservancy aims to persuade the Coastal Commission to reject Caltrans' plan to widen Laguna Canyon Road from two lanes to four from El Toro Road to Coast Highway, said Andrew Ogden, a Laguna Beach lawyer representing the group.
The state contends that the widening is needed to make the highway safer. But conservancy members say the highest number of accidents occur on the high-speed straightaway portion between El Toro Road and the San Diego Freeway, not the slower-speed winding stretch between El Toro Road and Coast Highway that includes the so-called Big Bend curve.
Ogden said that if the commission votes to approve the Caltrans proposal, he will file a lawsuit on behalf of the conservancy seeking to nullify that action. He said the conservancy's ultimate goal is to buy the canyon land from the Irvine Co. and set it aside as a public park. The cost of the acquisition could be up to $50 million, Ogden said. Laguna Beach City Councilwoman Lida Lenney said the council may ask the state to help in floating a bond issue in support of such a deal.
Rally organizers said an estimated 6,000 people already have sent letters of support for the conservancy. Late last week, the conservancy took out ads in the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety pleading for support from Hollywood celebrities who frequent Laguna Beach. But as of Sunday, no Tinseltown celebrities had come forward.
The rally was an attempt to muster still more public opposition to the road-widening plan. It featured, among other things, folk music, a raffle, artists and a sand castle building contest.
From noon to 2 p.m., conservancy supporters stood along the Coast Highway and the crowded beach boardwalk, waving "Save the Canyon" placards at honking motorists and enlisting support from pedestrian passers-by.
One woman, Sharon Heath, a "40-ish" writer from Laguna Beach, wore a white dress festooned with anti-development slogans. "Canyons come and canyons go, but developers get rich forever," proclaimed one message.
Adding to the carnival-like atmosphere was the unsolicited presence of chanting Hare Krishnas who set up a booth next to the conservancy's picnic table-display of "Save the Canyon" paraphernalia.
Then there was the appearance of the so-called "Laguna Phantom," a middle-aged Laguna Beach schoolteacher who has attracted considerable public attention in recent months for posting scathing anti-development signs along the canyon road. One such sign proclaimed in large red letters: "Rape!"
"I can't imagine driving through Laguna Canyon and not having it what it is--peaceful, beautiful; a museum of life as it was in Southern California," said the "phantom," who wore a blond wig and excessive facial makeup to help conceal her true identity.
Some of her signs, many of them carrying sarcastic poetic messages, were posted along Coast Highway in downtown Laguna Beach. One read: "Destruction, greed and profit. They bet we can't stop it."
Several beach-goers were sympathetic to the environmentalists' cause.