Another Go-round on Preservation Rules

A yet-to-be assembled task force will tackle fine-tuning of proposed revisions to the city’s historic preservation ordinance, the Laguna Beach City Council decided at a packed special workshop.

Establishing a planning process for owners of historic property to make changes to their homes remains the biggest unresolved hurdle to a rewrite of the city’s historic preservation rules. Efforts to revise the rules have been underway for more than two years over the course of 20 meetings before various panels, including the Design Review Board, Heritage Committee and Planning Commission. Last Saturday’s session was the first before elected officials, who have the last word on the regulations.

“We really don’t have a process,” said Community Development Director Greg Pfost. Owners of property listed in the city’s inventory of historic resources – some of whom are unaware of their property’s classification – are not subject to a pre-development screening process for historic resources. “That is one of the shortcomings we wanted to fix,” Pfost said.

The issue now left to the task force would help city staff answer those initial questions before homeowner projects progress too far, only to be deemed a historic resource and forced to restart based on restrictions specific to historic property. As envisioned, such changes to the ordinance would establish a more definitive system for all property owners seeking development permits, notably those properties previously identified as a historic resource and required to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. The act requires local government inform the public of potential environmental impacts of proposed projects, and to reduce environmental impacts where feasible.

“We started off with a program defined in our historic resources element that was a voluntary program, we were operating it locally. Then this change in CEQA came along and it really complicated things,” said Mayor Pro Tem Rob Zur Schmeide.

In the 1990s, CEQA included in its environmental assessment the impact of alterations to historic resources, and granted an exemption if development adhered to the Secretary of Interior Standards.

Among the ordinance revisions under consideration is abandoning the city’s 1981 historic home inventory, a list of 706 pre-1940 homes identified as historic resources through a survey. A different city Historic Register is comprised of 300 homes, whose owners applied for the designation and gained some development incentives. Both inventory and register homes are ranked with a letter classification system. Some owners of properties on the list labeled as “C”, or contributive to neighborhood character, contend the list is outdated and want to be removed. They say the historic resource label restricts their ability to remodel and negatively impacts their property values.

“Mandatory works very well where you have historic districts,” said resident Curt Barwick. “Laguna does not have historic districts. If you adopt a mandatory program in Laguna you end up with a few houses on a particular street you require they adopt the Secretary of Interior Standards where everybody else is judged by the community standards.”

Ordinance revisions recommended by the Planning Commission call for downgrading C-rated homes so they would not be considered a historic resource unless already on the city’s Historic Register.

“We need a new roof on our house,” said Miriam Lazur, who lives on Temple Hills Drive. “We can’t afford to spend $8,500 on a historical plan to see if we can even get a new roof on the house before we get a permit.”

Other changes to the ordinance endorsed earlier in the review process include adopting the state’s 1-5 classification and replacing the city’s current rating system of C, K and E – for contributive, key and exceptional architectural examples. “C”-rated structures would drop off the list by being downgraded to a rating of 6L. By adopting the state’s ratings system, all homes would essentially be stripped of their historic rating unless already on the city’s Historic Register.

Preservation proponents vied for a more detailed review process.

“We need a program that is effective and preserves the heritage we so treasure in Laguna Beach,” said historic preservation proponent and former mayor Ann Christoph. “They are so important to what we see as a neighborhood, as a city, to our historic character altogether.”

Another proposed change would raise the threshold to trigger a historic inquiry for a development permit to 70-year-old homes built before 1947, instead of the current ordinance’s 50 years. Routine over-the-counter permits would not trigger an initial historic inquiry.

Council member Bob Whalen questioned the rolling date. “Could we do a bright line that says anything built after 1940 is not historic?”

Proposed revisions also include the right for property owners to appeal a historical designation to city planners, which is not an option under the current ordinance.

“We want to have folks be able to challenge what their rating is,” said Pfost.

The Planning Commission also recommended revising parking incentives granted historic commercial properties, allowing a 50 to 75% reduction in parking spaces required, or up to 15 spaces. But, the award will come with a neighborhood parking demand study.

Council members and residents seemed in agreement a task force is the best next step to look at the recommended revisions to the ordinance before the council takes any future action.

“When you start talking about things like Historic Register, inventory, resources, it all starts to blend together,” Councilmember Steve Dicterow told the crowd. “I am having a real hard time, after years of studying this, figuring out what it all means.”

Originally published in The Indy, December 24, 2017

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