Planners Vote to Narrow Historic Designation

Planning Commission members voted 4-1 this past Wednesday not to adopt Laguna Beach’s 1981 Historic Inventory of homes, thus recommending to the City Council that the controversial list be used only as an informational resource document when considering proposed revisions to its Historic Preservation Ordinance. Roger McErlane cast the dissenting vote.

The three-hour discussion was the fourth hearing on the topic this year. It again was packed with those on both sides of the debate: historic supporters who say looser regulations will mean lost neighborhood character, and homeowners who say they want the right to do as they please with their properties and want the option to be removed from the inventory, which many call outdated and invalid.

“This is totally non-consensual, and in that way you are taking our property rights without our consent,” said North Laguna resident Pat Carpenter. “The last time I checked, that was wrong. I want my home off the list and a pathway to opt out.”

When homeowners want to repair or make updates to their homes, the city evaluates the home for historical significance. Homes on the 1981 Historic Inventory face further scrutiny, and are classified as E for exceptional, K for key, and C for contributive to a neighborhood’s overall character. To comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, changes made to current C-rated structures must also comply with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards and may trigger an Environmental Impact Study.

“People are aging in place, and we are trying to encourage that,” said Commission Chair Pro Tem Susan Whitin. “If they can’t afford to maintain their houses that is not going to be possible. They are not going to be able to do it if there are these historic state-level regulations on C structures.”

Under the commission’s recommendations not to adopt the 1981 inventory, current “C” structures will not be treated as a historic resource under CEQA. Owners of C-rated homes, like any others seeking improvements or changes, would go through the Design Review process. They would not, however, initially be subject to additional Heritage Committee, historic preservation review or reports. Proponents say the ordinance’s changes will further weaken protections for Laguna’s historic homes.

“The C-rated structures are the most vulnerable to cumulative loss, yet the draft ordinance offers them few protections,” said Charlotte Maserik, of Village Laguna, a group that aims to preserve village character. “It gives incentives for enhancement yet restricts them from being on the Historic Register. Surely we can do better.”

Owners of C, E and K-rated homes that want the incentives of a historic designation would have to meet certain criteria developed by the Design Review Board to demonstrate their properties are a historic resource, with E and K-rated structures eligible for Mills Act property tax benefits if they achieve Historic Register status.

The Commission also requested that any structure 70 years or older be given special Design Review consideration when seeking project approval, instead of a fixed cut-off date as earlier proposed of 1955. Commissioners felt a “rolling age” of 70-years-or-older homes would be more fluid and keep the ordinance from coming back for revisions every decade.

“I want to make sure as we go through this process the C-rated people can replace a window, replace a door, paint their house without having to go through a hassle,” said Planning Commissioner Anne Johnson.

Commissioners also asked planners rewrite the ordinance’s historical-structures parking requirements to mandate a parking demand study be done to evaluate existing or proposed use, neighborhood impact and available offsite and street parking when considering any parking incentive reductions. Currently, historic buildings in commercial zones can receive a required parking reduction of up to 75 percent based on the degree of which the building is restored. This change will require a parking demand study before those reductions are granted.

City staff will make the commission’s requested revisions for another review Sept. 6.

“I have a great deal of faith in the spirit of this town and the pride of place people have here,” Whitin said. “I have trust in the process and trust that people want to do the right thing.”

By Cassandra Reinhart

Originally published in The Indy, July 7, 2017

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