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Historic House Wins Reprieve

“Stonehenge,” one of the first houses built in south Laguna, was spared from possibly being bulldozed in a 10-2 vote by the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday, Feb. 6, which reversed the recommendations of its staff and an earlier decision by the Laguna Beach City Council to demolish the bluff-top cottage.

South Laguna Civic Assn. and Village Laguna appealed the decision to the coastal authority. The commission found there were significant issues regarding the historic importance of the property and reopened discussion in a de novo hearing where both pro and con evidence will be presented.  The hearing’s date is yet to be determined.

“We were told no one’s going to be allowed to speak at the coastal commission meeting,” property owner John Meehan said Thursday. “Laguna Village snuck in there and got their speech and we were unprepared and so the CC didn’t get a good rebuttal from our side.”

The house, a rated historical structure above the ocean at 31381 Coast Highway, has seen a myriad of owners and an equal number of structural changes.  It displays such historic features as gables, a cabana and cupola, street-side octagonal sunroom and San Onofre breccia exterior stonework, hence the name Stonehenge.  Over its 87-plus years, it has been altered and partially demolished both inside and out, often without city approval.

“According to everybody, it’s a wreck,” added Meehan.  “And it’s an eyesore.  What’s historic about it?  It’s been remodeled 11 times.”  Meehan said he will be prepared to speak at the de novo hearing.

Meehan wants to build a new 5,320-square-foot single-family home and a 767-square-foot attached three-car garage.  Plans include the existing beach-access stairs and cabana.  A request to review the new plans for approval was scheduled for the city’s Design Review Board meeting this past Thursday, Feb. 7.

Indy columnist Ann Christoph, a spokeswoman for the two appealing local preservation organizations, told the commission that an earlier report by a preservation agency found the structure worthy to rehabilitate and that its integrity as a significant historic structure was not intrinsically compromised.

Christoph conceded that many illegal changes were made to the house, but that did not warrant its destruction. A 2009 report by El Segundo consultant Galvin Preservation Associates described previous renovations that were then historically accurate and complied with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards.

The City Council voted 3-1 last April to support a decision by the Design Review Board to raze the house.  Then-council member Verna Rollinger dissented and colleague Toni Iseman abstained.  Iseman brought the item to the council and supported preserving the structure.  She quoted from the city’s land-use element document where it encourages “long-term preservation of historically significant buildings” and suggests that “destruction and alteration of historic significance…should be avoided whenever possible.”

Another issue at stake, according to the appeal, was that a beach-access stairway not conforming to city code would be removed, eliminating public access to the beach.  That feature, said Meehan, remains.    The appeal also argued that the city’s action approving the demolition did not abide by local environmental and coastal policies regarding natural resources.

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