Amid arguments, Laguna’s historic preservation ordinance moves to the City Council

Despite repeated calls from residents to reject the latest version of proposed changes to Laguna Beach’s historic preservation ordinance, the Planning Commission on Wednesday decided it was time for the City Council to review the matter.

In a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Sue Kempf dissenting, commissioners recommended proposed ordinance changes such as eliminating the city’s E, K and C rating system and setting a minimum age requirement for a structure — 70 years — that the city would consider in reviewing an application to demolish or alter a property not listed on its historic register.

The sixth meeting on the topic since March included more of the same arguments from residents that they do not want their houses to be included on any city list of historic structures and that they should be able to do what they want on their property.

“This property is anything but historical,” Laguna resident Dean Harbold said of the house he bought in 1970. “It has never been lived in by Bette Davis or any other Hollywood people. The previous owner was a pipe fitter who worked on ships in Long Beach.

“Who is to say what is historic? To one person, it looks like an eyesore. The other one calls it historical.”

Some attendees shouted or clapped following speakers’ comments, forcing Commission Chairwoman Susan Whitin to gain control early in the meeting.

“We need everyone to calm down here,” Whitin said. “In a public meeting there is certain behavior required. At our meetings there is no clapping. Listen respectfully.”

The proposed ordinance would do away with a 1981 inventory that included 852 pre-1940s homes, some of which embodied the distinctive characteristics of a time period, region, construction method, or represent work of an important creative individual, otherwise known as E- and K-rated properties.

Under the draft ordinance, these properties would be assigned a state Historical Resource Status Code of 1 through 5 and be considered a historic resource under the California Environmental Quality Act.

C-rated structures contribute to overall character and history of a neighborhood, but may not be architecturally significant, according to city documents

Under the proposed ordinance, these structures would be labeled 6L, which is not considered a historic resource under the California Environmental Quality Act, but still be given “special consideration” in Laguna’s planning review process.

“I have a lot of issues with the ordinance,” Kempf said. “I personally believe people should have voluntary inclusion in the historic preservation process. When you have voluntary historic preservation, when you have incentives, you get good results.”

The proposed ordinance includes incentives for homeowners such as waived building and permit fees and parking credits.

Just because a property may not fall under the aforementioned state status codes does not mean it would escape the lens of historical review in Laguna.

Laguna Beach, unlike some other Southern California cities, has a Design Review Board that vets proposed development projects using criteria such as historic preservation during public hearings.

Under Laguna’s current code, special preservation consideration should be given to any structures more than 45 years old.

When a homeowner wants to remodel or demolish a structure in Laguna Beach, a public hearing is required, attorney Kathy Jenson, representing the city, said during the meeting.

“One of the issues the city is required to assess [under state law] is whether it is affecting historic resources,” Jenson said.

Residents questioned why the community development director should be the person deciding if a structure might be a historic resource when a homeowner applies for a permit to demolish or alter a structure at least 70 years old.

Under the proposed ordinance, if the director determines that the property could be a historic resource, then Laguna’s Heritage Committee would weigh in on a suggested rating.

“The 70 years is just a screening tool,” Community Development Director Greg Pfost told the commission. “It does not mean all homes 70 years old are historic.”

“We could have said zero so every property has to be evaluated,” Commissioner Ken Sadler said. “I thought having 70 years [or older] would be less burdensome.”

As part of their recommendation, the commission wants to cap the number of parking spaces a commercial property owner would not need to provide in exchange for preserving or enhancing a building’s historic character.

Originally published in The Coastline Pilot, October 19, 2017

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