Comparison Shows an Outdated Historical Ordinance



Over the years many Lagunans have been critical of Laguna’s historical preservation program. On Oct. 18 the Planning Commission will try again to draft a revised ordinance. But there seems to be confusion and a lack of clear direction.

I called the historical preservation planners in Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Pasadena, Fullerton and Orange. It seems like we are living a bubble built on outdated ideas and dysfunctional regulations. Here is what I found:

  1. None use the CKE ranking system. All follow the Department of Interior and state criteria.
  2. They rely on individual initiatives and volunteer applications to register homes. All have private preservation societies that funnel grass roots private donations and support for historical preservation.
  3. They rely on Mills Act as the only financial incentive. They do not waive or reduce permit fees.
  4. They process Mills Act and registration at the same time. You get both or you get nothing.
  5. None have perpetual “agreements” that burden your home forever. Mills Act is a 10-year contract
with termination rights.
  6. Most do not waste money on outside consultants. They hire a qualified historical preservation planner who prepares the reports and processes applications. City Council approval is ministerial.
  7. They have structured their historical preservation program to minimize or exempt CEQA jurisdiction over building permits.
  8. None use “age” as arbitrary criteria for creating a huge “inventory”.
  9. Some have homes registered on the Federal or State Registry and historical districts or “preservation zones.” Laguna has neither.


Based on my research:

  1. CEQA does not mandate a city have a historical preservation program. Most cities do not.
  2. CEQA has a long list of categorical exemptions, including local building permits unless the structure is on the Federal or State registry or a “local agency registry.” Once created, a registry locks the city into CEQA control.
  3. CEQA does not mandate any age criteria.
  4. CEQA does not prohibit a city from revising, abolishing its ordinance, or revoking registration.
  5. CEQA does not require a local agency to force a home onto an inventory or registration.
  6. CEQA gives maximum discretion to the local agency, including voluntary historical preservation programs.


Laguna Beach needs to break from the past. Start with a clean sheet of paper and build its own ordinance based on the best practices and lessons learned from other cities. The Planning Commission and City Council need to agree on a set of guiding principles based on the above findings.

Doug Cortez, Laguna Beach


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