By Michael Ray
Almost everyone already knows about the horrors of the city’s Design Review Board. That is because anyone who has gone through it hates it with a vengeance, and they have good reason.
That reason: to get a permit to build or remodel anything, you must endure the DRB and you discover one horrible truth: the decisions by the DRB are totally arbitrary. Even if you meet all the stated “standards” as set forth by the city, even if you follow those “standards” to the exact, written specifications, even given that, the city’s own web site states:
“….these standards may not represent what is acceptable or approvable on a particular project……The [DRB] may, at its discretion[my italics] impose additional restrictions as necessary and appropriate.”
In plain English, no matter what you design or how much you conform to city guidelines, the DRB can approve or disapprove anything it wants.
Let me restate: the DRB has absolute authority, entirely arbitrary, to deny your request. It may do so for any reason or no reason at all.
It is maddening, and it is getting worse.
Beyond the DRB, if you own and want to remodel a home that was identified in the 1981 historic resources inventory, or if it is 50 years old, you’ve got a bigger problem. Follow me here:
The Historic Inventory was first created in 1981 with a list of more than 800 homes that were deemed “historic” by a city-hired consultant who never talked to the homeowners. The list recently was updated and hundreds more houses were included, again without talking to the homeowners.
If you want off, good luck. The city assumes your home is an “historic resource” and it is up to you to prove it is not—at your cost. As I said, good luck.
Being on the list means what you can do to your home is severely limited; so limited you may own a 500 square foot shack and not be able to do anything to it. If you can get a permit, your remodel must by monitored by an historic preservation expert to make sure you comply, also at your expense. And maybe even worse, if you fail to “maintain” the “historic resource,” you may be penalized with steep fines. Yup, you pay again, and hey, guess who gets to define “maintain?”
Now the city is seeking to declare any structure more than fifty years old to be an “historic resource.” Since this functionally will include all former remodels, at least 90 percent of the homes in Laguna may be placed, involuntarily, on the list.
The City Council knows this is unpopular, so it appointed a commission to look into it, even though there already have been several public hearings where attendees overwhelmingly voice opposition.
In the meantime, even if you are not on any list, you cannot proceed with doing anything to your home without the city determining whether your house may be an “historic resource.” To do so, you must hire a city-approved historic preservation consultant, who then makes the determination. These reports cost between $2,500 and $10,000 – on your dime – and these consultants are from the preservation community and have an institutional bias toward preserving old buildings.
Frankly, the city wants your home on the list, and the consultants know it.
The evaluation can take months. In the meantime, you get to hang and twist slowly in the wind. When you find out (again without your consent) your home is suddenly deemed “historic,” the marketability of your home, and its value, drop like a rock.
Finally, now, there is pushback from homeowners. Recently, a new non-profit group was formed, dedicated to one and only one notion: to require the city to obtain the consent of the owners before placing their houses on the list. That is, being on any list would be voluntary and it would be your decision.
The group is called “Let Laguna Live.” It legally was formed by local attorney Larry Nokes, who was enacting the desire of a group of volunteers, none of whom I know, who are fed up. The owners wanted to organize as volunteers to inform the public of the impacts of current city practices, and to suggest a better way—-voluntary inclusion only.
The group was formed within the past year, yet it already has more than 400 members. That amount is a staggeringly large number for a newly formed non-profit and reflects their increasingly angry concerns.
If you wish to join, simply click on the web site Letlagunalive.org and sign up. It costs you nothing and will take maybe two minutes.
It is up to you. You want to control your home’s own destiny or not?
Originally published in The Indy, June 7, 2018