Cottage Owners Wait in Historic Preservation Limbo

As if mourning a death, Elisa Slee can only sob her sentences.

“I thought I was making an heirloom for my children and I was going to breathe 100 new years into this cottage, and it was going to be something my children would go to forever,” Slee said, catching her breath between tears. “But maybe I won’t get to live in the cottage. Maybe I will just give up.”

Earl and Elisa Slee bought their slightly battered board-and-batten style cottage at 806 Cliff Dr. in the spring of 2013. It had been a lifelong dream for the Slees, Elisa a teacher and Earl an engineer, to own a little cottage in Laguna Beach.

“I lived a life of restraint. I would not buy that nice purse because I was saving for the cottage,” Slee said.

The 1936 cottage, all 1,000 square feet of it, cost the Slees $1.5 million. At that price, Elisa thought she should take advantage of the cottage’s history and register it, in an attempt to receive property tax relief under the Mills Act.

“I thought it would be great. We could save the money on taxes, and I like history; I am a teacher,” Slee said.

The Slees went to the city and found out the cottage was not listed on its historic register or inventory. City planners consulted with historian Jan Ostashay on the historic merit of the home. She judged it a 6L, ineligible for listing on a state or local historic registry. At the time, the consultant was involved in the city’s review of its historic preservation rules, proposing both “6L” and “C” rated structures not be considered historic resources under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but remain “structures of merit.”

About 17 percent of the 500 plus structures included in the city’s original 1981 historic survey no longer retain historic significance. Ostashay conducted a new survey in 2014, finding 213 structures deemed K rated, for architectural integrity; 138 C-rated, for contributing to neighborhood character; and 68 E-rated, or exceptional.

Told by city planners their property was “nothing great” historically, they hired an architect to start renovations, including changing a window to a door, adding square footage and resurrecting a porch documented in 1941.

“Our whole goal was to buy the cottage and move there,” Slee said.

Over two years, the Slees compiled their plans, consulting with an architect, civil engineers, designers, landscape designers, and geologists. After a zoning plan check in 2016, planners required a $3,700 historical assessment, which the Slees contested because of the initial first assessment. To move the process along, they went ahead.

The results shocked them. “Now it’s a K,” Slee said.

Dumbfounded, the Slees felt like they were back at square one.

“This is about the process. Once someone tells you that you proceed in the mindset that it’s not on the registry and it’s not historic,” Slee said. “And then you are suddenly stuck, and that seems wrong to me.”

The Slees are amongst those waiting anxiously a hearing Wednesday, Oct. 18, by the Planning Commission to finalize its recommendation to the City Council on revisions to the city’s historic preservation ordinance, under review now since 2014. Some homeowners want their property removed from the city’s historic home inventory due to current development restrictions. Conversely, historic proponents say loosening regulations will lead to overdevelopment and loss of the town’s historic beach-cottage character.

In a Sept. 14 letter to the Slees, Community Development Director Greg Pfost said city planners requesting the second historic assessment did not know of Oshtashay’s initial review. As she equated “6L” with a “C” rating, under the current ordinance the Slees’ cottage – whether rated “C” or “K” — still qualifies as a potentially historic resource.

That means the couple need an exemption from CEQA for a development proposal, the Secretary of Interior’s Standards (SOIS) must be met to ensure there will be no significant impact to the home.

Pfost sympathized over their confusion. “Unfortunately I can not ignore their findings in staff’s analysis when this project moves forward to the Design Review Board for review. To do so, would be a change in procedure from how the City has been operating.”

Planners outlined three options: revise the plans to qualify for a CEQA exemption, take their chances with as-is plans with the Design Review Board or wait for the pending ordinance revisions.

Under draft rules currently being considered, “6L” or “C” rated structures would no longer be considered a locally historic resource, allowing homeowners to develop their homes according to the less stringent requirements and sidestep SOIS standards.

Debbie Lewis has vast knowledge of the current historic preservation ordinance, having served five years on the city’s Heritage Committee and also as a historic homeowner. She says the ordinance and the city’s processes surrounding historic preservation still need a lot of work.

“It’s hard to get all of the correct information out there where everyone can understand it,” said Lewis, noting that property owners must navigate standards at several levels of government to improve their homes with permits. “There are some very, very sad stories for homeowners,” Lewis said.

The city has agreed to refund the Slees $3,476 for the cost of the second historical assessment by deducting it from their Design Review costs.

“Considering the confusion that the owner has experienced from the city as a result of its process, I believe some restitution is in order for this unique situation,” Pfost said in his letter.

For the Slees, that is not enough. They are seeking recompense of nearly $75,000 spent over the last four years for designing their home as if it was not a historic resource. The city is considering their request this week.

The Slees say they are not only out of money for new plans, their Laguna cottage dream is also running on empty.

“We have a chalkboard in the cottage,” Slee said, choking back tears. “The night we closed on the house our daughter wrote, ‘Slee Cottage, Established 2013.’ I just cry when I think about it.”

Originally published in The Indy, October 15, 2017

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