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Collision Over Preservation and Property Rights

By Howard Hills

After my grandmother Julia Hills passed away in 1963 we bought a new home in Wood’s Cove. Her old cottage above Boat Canyon that we loved was sold and demolished to make way for a church.

My wife and kids knew that my sense of loss about my childhood home was one of the reasons we recently rescued an E-rated 1922 historical cottage from the bulldozers.  We now have completed a faithful restoration that far exceeds the city’s historical preservation standards.

Yet, anyone with a personal agenda and nothing better to do with their time can use the city’s historical home program to interfere with property rights of historic home owners. That is a real disincentive to formally add our cottage to the historic registry.

Why do homeowners not trust the city to uphold property rights?  For the answer read a recent commentary by one-time City Council member Ann Christoph (“Scrape or Savor,” Indy, May 22).

As a South Laguna civic leader Christoph reportedly played a role in approval of a remodel that diminished the historical integrity of the “Stonehenge” house.  Be that as it may, she now bemoans and condemns its demolition so a new home can be built.  You’d think the Betty Davis house had been torn down and replaced by a tattoo parlor.

Indeed, Christoph informs us the standard she would impose before the property owner can build a new house is whether it will be valued decades hence by local architects of the future to the same degree as homes designed by the most renowned architects in our town’s history. If you don’t believe me read her commentary.

She also wants us to grieve because the life story of the original owner somehow is in danger of being forgotten due to the demolition of the house.  If his story does not stand on its own, making new owners of the property live in his old house won’t preserve it.

But if Christoph and her imaginary friends among architects of the future have their way, only what they deem architectural masterpieces will be built here.  Every home in town also would become a shrine to its past occupants, like the childhood homes of dead presidents.

Clearly, the tenacious Christoph’s pronounced zealousness is mostly about her story being remembered. It is worth noting that back in 2012 Christoph claimed a proposed “open space” parcel tax was for her a “legacy” to the community.  Of course, as a result the Christoph story now includes voter rejection of yet another city agency regulating land use, and deciding what “public uses” would be allowed in our private residential neighborhoods.

Undaunted, the fallback “legacy” project for Christoph was the South Laguna communal garden.  Now the City Council is investing tax dollars in that experiment.  That sets a precedent for other city subsidized limited use properties instead of general use parks, and that questionable policy may indeed be a fitting “legacy” for Christoph.

But she is not allowing the narrative of her “legacy” to be written by others or left to chance.  In her “Stonehenge” commentary Christoph augments her claim of entitlement to legacy by evoking the real-life legacy of legendary local architects, including Lamont Langworthy.

I knew Lamont back then, and lived in one of the homes he designed and often visited.  He pioneered new design in our town and was a contemporary of other visionary adults who organized the Citizens Town Planning Association (CTPA).

The CPTA enlisted citizens of all ages, including me, and we walked door-to-door and went to City Council meetings opposing high-rise development at Main Beach, a marina at Rock Pile cove, and a “coastal route” freeway through Laguna Beach. That activism set the stage for us to support and raise funds for the original Greenbelt Committee led by Jim Dilley.

This was when City Hall policy began to shift. That early debate over planning and conservation created the political logic that later made saving the rest of Laguna Canyon possible.

What Christoph omits is that Langworthy and his compatriots were builders, more about preventing corporate money from deciding our future better than government driven social engineering.  Langworthy and his peers thought building new houses and replacing or remodeling old ones was honorable, not something to be targeted for regulatory witch-hunts.

Christoph reminds us no one is entitled to a legacy.  Real and lasting legacies are earned by those who enable rather than sabotage creative community building, and who do so in a generous spirit.

Howard Hills is a third generation native of Laguna Beach and president of the Laguna Beach Republicans.

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