City Directs Lighter Touch for Historic Preservation

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach City Council backed away from a more restrictive approach to preserving historic buildings during a Saturday afternoon workshop where some homeowners complained about how existing rules are burdensome for those looking to remodel or redevelop their property.

Council members unanimously approved a new directive that city planning staffers can choose not to consider a building’s history when approving building permits unless it’s listed in the state’s or city’s historic register. Owners of homes on a local historic inventory conducted as part of the 1981 General Plan have to hire an architect to conduct a historic assessment of whether their home is identical to homes on national and state registries. Property owners could then demolish or alter their homes if they’re found not to be historic resources.

Laguna Beach’s attorneys previously argued that city staffers would have to follow the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act if there is a potential for it be recognized as a historic resource regardless of local preservation laws.

Council members also directed the Historic Preservation Ordinance Task Force to craft a new local historic inventory program that would be voluntary for property owners and come up with strategies to make it appealing for them to join.

“It’s clear from people who sat up here 30 years ago it was intended to be voluntary, it should be voluntary, and if the answer is that the city needs to undertake a CEQA analysis with some respect to certain limited properties … we should do that at city expense and we should not impose that on the homeowner,” Councilman Bob Whalen said.

Council member Toni Iseman suggested that the city staffers meet with historic owners before they leave the local historic inventory to explain the restrictions if they were to demolish their home with the hope of building a new one.

“Often these little houses are on little lots and if they scrape that little house they are going to have less at the end of the day than they had at beginning of the day,” Iseman said. “There are a lot of benefits to historic homes in terms of maximizing the livability.”

If homeowners substantially change a historic structure, they could be required by the city to meet modern on-site parking and lot line requirements that weren’t around when the home was built.

Iseman also said she believes that anyone who owns a historic home should not be required to pay for a historic assessment of their home that’s required by CEQA. There is now money allocated in the city budget to pay for these reports, she said.

Among the residents who shared their complaints about Historic Preservation Ordinance was Jeff Benedict.

Benedict, a 44-year-resident of Laguna Beach, started working with city staff in 2010 on preliminary plans to remodel his Holly Street home. City staffers learned of its potentially historic designation and instructed Benedict to hire a historian to assess the property’s condition. After spending $9,000 for the historic resource assessment, Benedict learned that the home didn’t meet the criteria to be historic. He’s now being told by city staffers to have the report peer reviewed by other historians at his own expense.

“We want the ability to develop our properties in ways that are livable, sustainable, environmentally-friendly, compatible with our neighborhood as well as ADA-compatible,” Benedict said.

Laguna Beach resident Diane Riegler said she needs to remodel her home because it has the original plumbing and electrical wiring but has been blocked by the Heritage Committee even though her architect submitted four rounds of drawings.

“I would like to have the freedom and the right to remodel my home just like all the other property owners that are not on the historic inventory,” she said. “Today, I could be living in a safe remodeled home if it was not subject to all the rules, regulations, and expense of being on the inventory.”

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