Laguna Historic Houses Debated

Stop inventory of historic houses or extend it citywide, Laguna planning commissioners suggest

By Bryce Alderton

After months of listening to some residents’ requests that they be allowed to voluntary withdraw their homes from an outdated inventory of historical houses and other buildings, Laguna Beach planning commissioners on Wednesday mulled whether to halt a process already underway to edit the list.

Commissioners addressed this and other topics in a multi-hour hearing as the city revises its historic preservation ordinance, which currently includes editing a 1981 inventory that had 852 pre-1940s houses considered historic based on a handful of factors, including architectural style and association with important historical events or significant people.

The inventory’s fate remains unclear, as commissioners suggested two options for the City Council to consider when it eventually discusses the matter. The city is revising the ordinance to align with state and federal preservation standards.

Some commissioners, such as Ken Sadler, said the inventory has worth as a marker when residents propose remodels or alterations.

“It will heighten the level of uncertainty [if the updating process stops],” Sadler said. “The idea that we could say, ‘Oh, we’ll just get rid of the inventory with a bunch of E- and K-rated structures.’ Are these homeowners going to get the impression to do whatever they are able to do?”

Other commissioners, such as Anne Johnson, said the process of editing the inventory should either be halted or a comprehensive citywide inventory be conducted so all properties would be held to the same standards when the Design Review Board considers plans for work such as remodels.

“We know there are other houses around that should have been surveyed,” Johnson said. “That is my problem.”

For the last year or so, several homeowners have publicly said they have been hindered from making exterior changes to their properties because of the structure’s historic status.

Multiple residents said they had no idea their homes were on a city inventory until they applied for a permit at City Hall.

The city hired historical consultant Jan Ostashay four years ago to survey the 852 properties on the original inventory, which classified properties as E, K or C.

Properties with an E, the highest rating, and K embody the distinctive characteristics of a time period, region, construction method, or represent work of an important creative individual.

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

Ostashay recommended some properties maintain their original ratings while others be downgraded or upgraded. Other houses had been demolished.

The draft inventory includes 213 structures with a K-rating, 68 with an E-rating and 138 with a C-rating, the Daily Pilot reported earlier this year.

Commissioners unanimously agreed that a house or building must be at least 70 years old to be considered under a historical lens. City staff had suggested 1955 as a cut-off year.

Laguna planner Martina Caron told commissioners the current inventory is not valid as it pertains to California Environmental Quality Act rules because it has not been updated every five years.

Some speakers on Wednesday claimed the draft ordinance contained inconsistencies and omissions and suggested the ordinance update start anew.

Resident Norm Grossman, a former planning commissioner, said the draft ordinance does not specify design standards to be used in reviewing projects, among other concerns.

“You’ve got a philosophical problem that is not addressed,” Grossman told commissioners. “Under the ordinance sites, objects and landscape features can be considered historic. That is never addressed anywhere.”

Johnson added that she wants the process to be voluntary so people would want to preserve and/or improve their properties.

In some cases, that could mean placement on the city’s historic register, in which case property owners could apply for property tax relief under the Mills Act.

The Mills Act is a state law that grants authority for cities and counties to enter into contracts with property owners who agree to restore and maintain their properties.

Kathy Jenson, an attorney with Rutan & Tucker, LLP, the law firm that represents the city, said the city is not legally required to have an inventory in response to one of Johnson’s questions.

The commission unanimously directed staff to return Sept. 6 with an updated draft ordinance.

Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2017

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