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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : A Deal in the Public Interest

January 22, 1992

The $776-million fund created by Proposition 70 in 1988 promised, through acquisitions, to open up land for parks and the protection of wildlife. But creating a pool of money does not necessarily make for an airtight open-space agreement down the road. It takes earnest negotiations and careful land-use planning to set aside parcels and protect them from future development.

The recent satisfactory resolution of such a deal in Laguna Canyon is a tribute to the resolve of the parties involved. It had threatened to come unraveled because of loose ends in the Irvine Co.'s access rights. The willingness of the developer to be flexible after the problem surfaced deserves special mention. The Irvine Co. could have been a spoiler by insisting on retaining certain privileges it had come away with from the negotiations.

The state agreed last year to buy 82 acres of a huge reserve in Laguna Canyon to be set aside to protect wildlife. The scenic land contains several endangered species of flowering plants, two rare lizards and several rare birds, including the much-publicized California gnatcatcher. But Laguna Beach negotiated the arrangement on behalf of the state before state officials had studied what had been agreed. And in those negotiations, the developer retained water rights and authority to approve and maintain the land's wildlife habitat. Once the state examined the fine points, it objected strenuously.

The Irvine Co. agreed to eliminate nearly all the 20 pages of conditions outlined in the deed. It maintained its subsurface mineral rights, below 500 feet, and the right to modify Laguna Canyon Road on an edge of the state's land, as long as any damage to habitat is corrected.

By backing off, the company acted on the broader impulse of preserving Orange County wilderness. It was a deal that came none too soon for Laguna Beach. The city has been losing interest on the $4 million that it would have received from the state in bond money to pay for the land. The successful conflict resolution preserved a fundamentally sound and beneficial agreement, and it affirmed the earlier wisdom of the state's voters in enabling such complex deals to be worked out.

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