Keeping aging buildings true to their historic nature is nothing short of a frustrating and nebulous task, as evidenced during a meeting of the city’s Heritage Committee. The committee met to review the first draft of a new historic preservation ordinance last Thursday, June 16.
When it comes to issues such as defining different levels of historic status, setting standards to qualify for government cost breaks and balancing property-owners’ rights with requirements to maintain historic integrity, the task gets even more complicated.
The Heritage Committee and the city’s community development staff wrangled over that undertaking, attempting to clearly define historic structures and how to treat them in the seventh public workshop since September discussing the elements for revising historic-preservation regulations.
After an hour-long presentation and more than two hours of comments and questions, Community Development Director Greg Pfost summarized the committee’s suggestions to provide direction to city staff.
The question came down to whether C-rated or “contributive” buildings, considered the least significant in historic value, provide enough character to warrant equal treatment with higher-rated structures. As it currently stands, owners of structures that are K-rated, for key, and E-rated, for exceptional, receive benefits that include assessment fee exemptions and other cost reductions.
The staff will revise the proposed ordinance to allow C-rated structures to share the same benefits that apply to higher-rated historic structures, Pfost reiterated to the committee. Structures are scrutinized for historical significance when owners seek permits for proposed changes to the property, Pfost said.
The staff will also compile a list of newly listed C-rated structures, which may also become known as neighborhood properties, with a “beefed up” list of criteria, as suggested by committee member Rick Gold.
Gold disagreed with the equal-treatment approach. If all historic structures receive the same incentives, there’s no incentive for owners to restore or retain historic integrity in order to earn a place on the city’s historic register, he said, receiving “bravos” from the few residents left at the end of the meeting. “How are we going to get more people on the register? We have no protection with that property anymore,” he said.
The city maintains a historic inventory that includes 850 structures with varying degrees of historic significance. Another 300 structures on a second list, the historic register, currently qualify for state and local financial incentives. The inventory list has declined by 17 percent, a loss of 87 buildings since 1981 due to changes made to the structures and stricter guidelines, according to a 2014 report by Jan Ostashay, a historic consultant hired by the city.
A K-rated structure is the highest for historic significance and qualifies for more benefits. These can include a reduction of property taxes under the state Mills Act of 1972 in exchange for continued preservation of the property. The owner of an E-rated structure can also qualify for Mills Act benefits and receives the same city cost breaks.
“The Mills Act is ultimately the prize,” said committee member Linda Morgenlander.
C-rated structures can be upgraded to a K-rating if restored to meet national historic-structure criteria. Unlike K- and E-rated structures, newly rated C structures, according to the proposed ordinance, are not subject to compliance requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, which considers historical resources part of the environment. CEQA requires public comment to provide alternatives or mitigation measures on projects that may affect a historical resource.
The staff was also directed to review and incorporate suggestions from the South Laguna Civic Association. The association fears downgrading of C-rated buildings could lead to demolitions in neighborhoods known for beach bungalows, said association treasurer Mary Ives, who presented a 10-page document of concerns and suggestions.
Members of the public suggested eliminating the rating system altogether and opting for a simplified historic designation without distinguishing whether one structure is more deserving of a higher rating than another. Bonnie Hano, a former committee member, suggested designating properties as simply historic or not historic.
“If this city is serious about historic preservation, I think it’s vital they protect all historic properties,” said Hano. “I think C-rated structures are not only important to the neighborhood but I think they’re important to Laguna Beach. I would like to see them get the same privileges as the E and the K get.”
Some of the higher-rated structures were in worse shape than C-rated structures, said another resident, Roberta Kansteiner, who photographed structures on the city’s historic inventory list. “…some weren’t worthy of worrying about anymore,” she said.
Larry Nokes, president of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Hano to applause from the full-house crowd that was largely comprised of realtors and architects. “If we put them (all) on the register,” said Nokes, “we can get rid of all this hocus-pocus about who’s on, who’s not, what gradings are they, what do the realtors have to do, what do they have to say to the seller to the buyer.”
Another meeting to discuss the ordinance is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 7, in the Council Chambers. The city’s Design Review Board and Planning Commission will consider the ordinance before its review by the City Council.
The purpose of the Heritage Committee is to preserve and enhance structures with historical significance and to recognize Laguna’s history as an art colony and seaside resort. The first of 41 Laguna homesteads was granted in 1876 to George Fountain, according to a homesteader’s map compiled in 1996 by Beryl Viebek from Interior Department records. The city was incorporated in 1927.
by Rita Robinson
Originally published in The Indy on June 26, 2016