Hearings Begin on Reworked Historic Preservation Rules

Long-anticipated revisions to the city’s historic preservation rules will be presented by city planners to the Design Review Board on Thursday, Nov. 10, at 6 p.m., in the City Council Chambers.

The Heritage Committee wrapped up a years-long study of the ordinance Sept. 28. While the focus of the current meeting is to discuss the draft, staff will not address one of the most contentious issues, proposed changes to the rating system on the Historic Inventory. That discussion will be reserved for a future workshop with the Heritage Committee. (The revised draft should be available on the city’s website Friday, Nov. 4.)

The question of which buildings should be included in the Inventory goes back to the early 1980s, according to former mayor Ann Christoph, who witnessed the process. “It was a systematic review of the city’s historic resources under the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation. A consultant was hired to evaluate local structures that contribute to Laguna’s heritage and completed the forms.” Christoph noted that three categories were defined and incorporated into the Laguna Beach Historic Resources Inventory. According to that document, “E” indicates exceptional historic properties, like the Hotel Laguna (the town’s first hotel, built in 1888) and St. Francis By-the Sea American Catholic Church on Park Avenue (listed on the National Register of Historic Places, built in 1934). “K” indicates key buildings that are “significant architectural, historical, and/or aesthetic value and are fine period examples.” “C” indicates properties that “contribute to the historical character or history of the city or their neighborhood.”

Some “C” category property owners in recent weeks received an unsigned letter warning that “NEW legislation scheduled to pass is dramatically affecting your property rights and future property value…. YOU MUST make your feelings and property rights known as soon as possible to City Council members [as] they make their final decision to pass this new legislation.”

Local attorney Larry Nokes said he was surprised to see a recent op-ed he had written, which raised criticisms of the proposed ordinance revisions, attached to the anonymous letter which he disavowed.

Nokes said a different list applies to older buildings: the Historic Register. For this list, homeowners currently can either nominate or apply for their property to be included, Nokes said. In return, they can receive property tax breaks and other incentives. They can also later opt out of the list, according to Nokes. “I take no exception to the Register. If people want to be in the Register, God bless them, let ‘em do it. But in terms of the Inventory we need to stop making reference to it because it’s invalid.”

Nokes, Laguna Beach City Attorney Phil Kohn and Cindy Heitzman, executive director of the California Preservation Foundation, exchanged correspondence in 2015 about the validity of the inventory of historic properties. Nokes maintained it was out of compliance with state law, not having been updated every five years as required under state regulations.

“We never suggested that in the event of a stale survey, the process must restart ‘from scratch’ every five years,” Kohn said in a letter dated Sept. 30, 2015. A resource can be determined historic through independent means, Kohn said.

Nokes believes the city’s historic Inventory should be invalidated. “What I don’t like about the inventory is that it’s compulsory, there’s no way out, and there’s no due process for the homeowner,” he said.

Christoph said it’s accurate that homeowners had no control over being added to the Inventory, but inclusion does not prohibit remodeling. Many other issues, such as proximity to an ocean bluff, topography, geology, views, and rare vegetation, also restrict development, she said. “History is one of the factors that must be considered in planning a future change. Laguna Beach is an historic city, so preserving our historic character is what we as a community strive to do,” Christoph said.

Anja Reich, a long-time resident and artist who lives in South Laguna, learned she was the owner of a class “C” home two or three years ago. She was among the recipients of the recent anonymous letter and said she was “disturbed” by it. “I’ve fought for maintaining the integrity of my neighborhood. But I live in a house built in 1935, and things break down. This controversy is confusing to the people who just want to live peacefully. I will be attending the Nov. 10 meeting.”

More info: contact Martina Caron, senior planner, at 949 464-6629.

By Jean Ardell

Originally published in The Indy on November 8, 2016

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