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THE STATE

Their Love for Laguna Hasn't Budged

The eclectic group that calls the city home has learned to accept its volatile nature.

June 05, 2005|Dan Weikel and Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writers

Laguna Beach is Orange County's cultural melting pot. Old money mingles with the nouveau riche. Gays and lesbians are influential in civic life. There are artists, celebrities, tree huggers and one-time followers of hippie icon Timothy Leary.

They have little in common, except this: Come rain, mud, wildfires, landslides -- and in Laguna they all come, regularly -- few would live anywhere else.

"It's just a friendly village," said Steve Hopkins, 61, a real estate developer who lives in the hills overlooking Emerald Bay. "Saturday mornings, you go downtown and see people you know -- and some people you probably don't want to know. There are authors and there are degenerates. It's an eclectic bunch."

In October 1993, when a massive fire swept through Laguna Beach destroying more than 400 homes, the flames burned nearly to Hopkins' front door.

"I never thought about moving anywhere else," he said.

No wonder. Laguna Beach is the heart of the California Riviera with steep hills that soar out of the sea. Craftsman bungalows and beach cottages mix with gated mansions and boxy contemporary homes on lots surrounded by eucalyptus trees, chaparral and coastal sage scrub.

The town is known for its rocky coves and pocket beaches, rugged headlands and surf spots that ignite when solid swells come out of the south. People also move here for the isolation. With only two ways in and out -- Laguna Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway -- Laguna Beach is an island attached to a metropolis.

Above all, the atmosphere in Laguna is laid back: Despite all the money here, swimsuits and shorts are the great equalizers.

Artists discovered the place starting in the early 1900s, drawn by the picturesque landscape and quality of light. Hippies moved in during the 1960s. Gays followed them in the 1970s. Since then, the city has attracted more wealthy residents intent on capturing the California Dream.

Each new batch of residents fell in love with Laguna's beauty -- and learned to respect its predisposition for natural disaster. In many ways, the potential for havoc has worked to bring these diverse groups together.

"It was the one and only place I wanted to live," said Bill LaPointe, 65, owner of the Orange County and Long Beach Blade, a newspaper aimed at gays. "It was one of the most picturesque places I'd ever seen."

LaPointe moved to Laguna in 1971 after graduating from USC. Since then, he has dodged several floods and fires. On his 40th birthday, a hillside slid into his swimming pool and office.

LaPointe estimates he has spent more than $200,000 to repair flood damage, re-compact hills and install pumps in his basement.

Still, he stays. And last week's landslide, which destroyed, damaged or imperiled 48 homes, was in many ways just another bump.

"I'm in love with the area," LaPointe said. "There are beautiful birds and wild animals and a forest around me. I have a great degree of privacy. I can't imagine anywhere else I'd like to live."

Like LaPointe, artist Ken Auster isn't moving either. He has been evacuated from his home and studio in Laguna Canyon several times because of natural disasters. The closest call came during the 1993 fire when a eucalyptus tree exploded in flames in front of his house.

"Like I told a friend, after an event like the landslide, you always think a little about it," Auster said. "But after a couple glasses of wine and watching the sunset, you really don't care."

Auster, 55, is an Impressionist painter who started with surf art and has moved on to more serious subjects. He moved to Laguna Beach in 1972. The town, he believes, maintains much of the feel it had in the '60s and '70s when it was roughly half the size it is now.

"A majority in this town are not trying to keep up with the Joneses. They don't move here to impress," Auster said. "They have the world niched out and are happy to walk to the beach."

That said, the place is so popular that the median home price today is nearly $1.6 million.

Laguna has remained, by Orange County standards at least, a bastion of liberalism. About half of the county's registered voters are Republican; in Laguna, it's less than 40%, although no party holds a majority.

Laguna is more white than the county as a whole -- 92% versus 65%. It's older -- the median age is 43, while countywide it's 33. And, no surprise here perhaps, Laguna Beach is also richer: Nearly 40% of households make $100,000 or more a year, according to the 2000 census.

Ann Christoph, an environmental activist and landscape architect who moved to Laguna in 1971, said she was drawn by its beauty and small-town feel. She soon fit in with the growing environmental movement.

"You feel enveloped by the community," Christoph said. "You just feel you could call somebody whenever you needed something."

Over the years, Christoph has worked for Laguna Greenbelt Inc., which was instrumental in stopping development in large sections of Laguna Canyon. She also has served on the City Council and Planning Commission.

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