Faced with a loud overflow crowd this past Wednesday, Laguna Beach planning commissioners voted 4-1 to recommend revisions of the city’s historic preservation ordinance to the City Council. Commissioner Sue Kempf cast the dissenting vote.
Several outbursts from the public prompted commissioners to warn they would end discussion on the ordinance if members of the crowd didn’t stop shouting and applauding during the public comments.
“Everybody calm down here,” Commission Chair Susan Whitin scolded the crowd. “If it continues to be this free-for-all we are not able to get the input we want.”
Commissioners tried to clear up confusion over their revisions to the ordinance, which include a recommendation to replace the city’s rating system of C, K and E – for contributive, key and exceptional architectural examples — with the state’s 1-5 classification.
By adopting the state’s ratings system, all homes would essentially start from scratch in terms of their historic rating unless already on the city’s Historic Register, which grants special benefits to owners who all voluntarily agreed to preserve their property at some point since 1989, according to a city statement about the ordinance under review.
The ordinance would initially set a threshold of a property’s age at 70 years or older to trigger a city historic inquiry when an owner applies for a development permit that requires a public hearing. At that time, if deemed historic, the property would be given a rating under the state’s 1-5 system. Routine over-the-counter permits would not trigger an initial historic inquiry.
Community Development Director Greg Pfost said the ordinance’s change in process is a much needed improvement, as some homeowners get far along in the process with architect’s plans only to find out their property is a historic resource.
“It doesn’t mean all homes 70 years old are historic. It’s a screening tool we can use to try and determine whether it’s historic or not and go down a procedure and that has appeal rights all the way to City Council,” Pfost said.
Upset homeowners of so-called C-rated structures, the lowest rating in the city’s classification of historic buildings, testified for an hour on why they wanted their homes removed from the city’s historic inventory, a list of 706 pre-1940 homes that were identified through a survey in 1981 as being eligible candidates for the special benefits of. The homeowners contend the inventory is outdated and the designation infringes on their property rights by restricting their ability to remodel and renovate their homes without having to adhere to stringent state standards.
“I spent four years in the United States Marine Corps to keep things like this from happening,” said resident Dean Harbold. “This is what happens in a Russian dictatorship, not an American democracy.”
If the owner of a currently C-rated home seeks a development permit, they could now be rated a 6L by using the state’s classification guidelines, thus not on the scale to be considered a historic resource unless it is already listed on the city’s Historic Register. Currently, the city maintains that the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, requires any development proposal impacting a historic resource obtain an exemption or be subject to the strict development policies of the Secretary of Interior Standards. Even so, an owner of a 6L property seeking a development permit can be subject to conforming to the city’s design guidelines, which residents say are too subjective.
“Who is to say what is historical? To one person it looks like an eyesore. The other one calls it historical,” Harbold asked.
By eliminating the C structures as a resource, commissioners are actually trying to lessen the burden on homeowners, said Commission member Ken Sadler said. “In my opinion, this is to try to improve it, make it less onerous on homeowners, easier for those who have lesser-rated structures to be able to modify or repair their homes with less hassle,” he said.
Other revisions to the ordinance include rendering the controversial 1980s inventory of historic homes as unofficial and requiring more historical training for city staff. The ordinance also revises the parking incentives given to commercial properties that are rated historic, allowing 50-75% reduction in the parking spaces they are required to provide, or up to 15 spaces, whichever is more restrictive. But, the award will come with a neighborhood parking demand study.
Both property rights advocates and champions for historic preservation told commissioners they thought the ordinance needed more work before it being passed on to the city council.
“The ordinance is not well written nor is it good public policy,” said Village Laguna President Johanna Felder. “It serves neither the cause of preservation nor the frustration for property owners.”
“Felder and I are polar opposites, usually, and I agree with her,” said local architect Marshall Innins. “I hate this. It’s not written well. It’s not working.”
The ordinance, as revised, now moves on to City Council for first review at its meeting Nov. 14.
Originally published in The Indy, October 20, 2017