Fanatic Preservationists Are Hurting Laguna Families

By Daniel Rosenthal

Historic preservation efforts by the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition, a close affiliate of Village Laguna, and ardent preservationist Cathy Jurca go too far when they start to ruin the lives of families who are just trying to do the right thing.

In addition to suing the City in their attempt to derail the proposed new Historic Preservation Ordinance, this group, with Jurca’s support, has now filed suit against the Kirbys, a fine family of four with deep roots in Laguna. If successful, this suit could effectively kill the Kirby’s efforts to fully renovate and improve their Historic Register property in North Laguna. You heard it right. The Kirbys are passionate about historic preservation! They must be passionate, because here’s what they’ve had to go through so far:

  • They bought their property in 2017 with full knowledge that it was on the Register and with the vision of renovating the deteriorating property into a fine home for their young family. They engaged renowned architect Todd Skenderian and with guidance from the Planning Department they created a set of plans.
  • To ensure compliance with CEQA Guidelines and the Secretary of the Interior Standards for renovation of historical resources they hired a state licensed historic consultant to conduct a full analysis of the plans.
  • Based on that report, the Kirbys changed their plans to make them compliant.
  • Then they went to Heritage Committee who approved the project with some suggested changes. They changed the plans again.
  • They sent out the required notices to all residents within 300 feet of the property, requesting comment and input on the design. The next-door neighbor, Dennis Sundman, complained that his view was being restricted. The plans were revised again to address this concern.
  • Then they went to the Design Review Board. The project was again approved by a vote of 4-1, subject to further changes. The Kirbys complied and modified the plans for a fourth time.
  • Sundman, with support of Cathy Jurca and other Village Laguna board members, appealed the Design Review decision to the City Council.
  • On Dec. 1, after nearly four years, the City Council denied the appeal and approved the project by a unanimous decision of 5-0.

Five weeks ago, Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition, and Sundman’s own newly organized Historic Architecture Alliance, sued the Kirbys, Todd Skenderian, and the City claiming they violated CEQA Guidelines because they didn’t do enough to protect the historic elements of the property. Seriously? The Community Development Department says they’ve done enough. The Heritage Committee says they’ve done enough. The Design Review Board says they’ve done enough. And the City Council, including our beloved Toni Iseman, unanimously says they’ve done enough. And where has all this gotten them? An expensive lawsuit. To which I say, enough!

These and other lawsuits, either pending or to come, are causing incalculable collateral damage. How many families who would love to move into a potentially historic home in Laguna will now think twice about it? How many families who were thinking about renovating their older home will decide to just move on? How many older properties that should be restored will continue to deteriorate (like the Kirby’s) because owners are scared they’ll get sued for trying to do the right thing?

How long can the Kirbys last? The lawsuit and appeals could last years. At incredible personal and financial cost, they have run the regulatory gauntlet to get their project approved only to have misdirected preservation zealots sue them in order to have them do still more. The Kirbys told me this process has pushed them to their financial and emotional breaking point. What more can any rational, compassionate Laguna resident expect of them? I’ll tell you. You can expect them to fight. They love Laguna. They love the historic property they’re trying to save. Any reasonable resident who believes in bringing and keeping good families in town should support them. Anyone who favors rational renovation of historic properties should support them. Support them. Say enough!

Daniel is a member of the Laguna Beach Heritage Committee and former chair of the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Ordinance Task Force.

Originally published in The Indy on March 12, 2021

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