South Laguna Civic Assn. officials will host a potluck from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday and other activities at the South Laguna Community Garden to bring attention to their efforts to buy the land.

The group believes bringing folks into the garden will raise support and funding for the purchase of the two plots in the 31600 block of Coast Highway that local gardeners have tilled for three years. The asking price is almost $1 million, which does not include fees to fundraising companies and the city's development department for a conditional use permit.

A holiday sing-a-long will be held at 3:30 p.m. Dec 15 and monthly programs are being discussed to lure folks into what the gardeners have transformed as a vegetable and fruit garden.

"I assume everyone in Laguna and Dana Point has seen the garden, but I am sure being in it would broaden interest and support," association President Bill Rihn said.

Current zoning allows the garden with a temporary use permit. The use permit runs with the property unless the use lapses for one year. The South Laguna Commercial Zone makes the property available for commercial development or multi-residential units.

"The garden would fall into the no-more-noxious-than-other-uses category," Community Development Director John Montgomery said.

An association request for $251,000 of the city's money to jumpstart the fundraising campaign was denied by the City Council at the Nov. 13 meeting. That decision ended a proposed agreement with property owner Paul Tran to hold off selling the property for a specific period of time while the association tried to raise the money.

The association previously said it is entitled to the city money because it came from the sale of property in South Laguna that was identified on a 1927 tract map as parkland, while under county jurisdiction. Never used as a park, the property was inventoried as surplus county land and acquired by the city this year through a quit-claim deed.

"Since the city turned us down, everything is back on the table," Rihn said. "Now that we don't have to satisfy the city requirements anymore, we are reviewing everything."

However, the group hasn't given up all hope of getting funding from the city, according to Ann Christoph, former mayor and garden committee member.

They are considering making contact with new council members to test the waters, she said.

Meanwhile, the association is talking to three firms that would partner with it to help the fundraising meet IRS requirements for nonprofits.

"We cannot accept donations until we have that status," Rihn said.

The association is in contact with OneOC and Charitable Ventures, both in Santa Ana. However, Charitable Ventures has advised the association that changes have been made in their agreement form that required a face-to-face meeting, Rihn said.

"There is another firm that is interested in the project, but it is not quite as attractive as the other two," he continued. "Right now we are just brainstorming."

Raising a million dollars by a nonprofit is a daunting task, according to Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, who has made a career out of it.

Pearson gave the garden and the gardeners kudos, but voted with Councilman Kelly Boyd and outgoing Mayor Jane Egly against the association's request at the Nov. 13 hearing. Pearson said she doesn't think it belongs on a commercially-zoned parcel fronted by Coast Highway, not to mention other pressing claims for the city's money, including expenses from the 2010 flood and the Village Entrance project.

Even without city funding, the association and the gardeners are resolved to add financial equity to the sweat equity they have been building since 2009, Rihn said. Visibility is a key factor in the fundraising.

"The garden would never be as popular if it were hidden away somewhere," Christoph said. "People walking by wander in. You go to tend your plot and people start asking questions. They are so positive, so complimentary — it's one of the joys.

"That was what was so saddening about the council's decision. It was the first time in three years that anyone said they didn't like the garden," she said.

The association is hoping that contact with the new council members will be more fruitful. More information about the garden is at http://www.southlaguna.org.

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