Council OK’s Roadmap to Reform Historic Preservation Law

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach took a step forward Tuesday in reforming its controversial historic preservation ordinance, including the abandonment of Laguna Beach’s unique rating system and instead using statewide standards.

City staff asked the City Council to review seven recommendations from the Historic Preservation Ordinance Task Force on how to improve the city’s laws about improving, remodeling and demolishing structures that are deemed to have historic value. The 11-person panel appointed by the City Council nearly a year ago has spent hundreds of hours analyzing the best ways to improve the ordinance.

Since hearing about many homeowners’ displeasure with the historic preservation ordinance during the 2018 election, the City Council has been moving toward making it voluntary for properties to be listed on Laguna Beach’s historic resource inventory if they don’t meet the threshold for state or federal recognition.

Ultimately, the council members found consensus to move forward on new regulations that include four of the Task Force’s recommendations:

  • The city has traditionally used its historic rating system that identifies buildings as exceptional, key, or contributive. However, the system has proved confusing and unpopular among property owners who prefer that their address not appear on a city-run registry. Instead, Laguna Beach will follow historic resource rating recognized on a statewide basis.
  • Residents who want to remodel but also maintain incentives such as variances for building on a small lot and parking shortage waivers could concurrently apply for their property to be listed on the City’s Historic Register. This way, owners aren’t stuck on the Register if they decide not to move forward with construction.
  • The city should eliminate the requirement that a structure be at least 50 years old to be considered historic.
  • The City Council also agreed that some small projects, such as the installation of hot water heaters, should be exempt from having to be approved by the Design Review Board if they’re consistent with the Secretary of Interior’s standards.

Assistant City Attorney Kathy Jenson and Director of Community Development Greg Pfost advised the City Council that the impacts of these changes needed to be examined under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“What this is going to do as a voluntary ordinance is take away some of those protections and that act in and of itself … has a potential effect upon the cultural resources in town as well as the physical environment in town,” Pfost said.

City staffers or a consultant will prepare an initial study that will determine whether the city needs to commission a full environmental impact report for the revised historic preservation ordinance. This is significant for homeowners looking to change the law because if a full EIR is required, the earliest the California Coastal Commission could approve the changes is May 2020. If the City Council decides not to do an EIR, the revised ordinance could be in front of the Coastal Commission next December.

One idea unsuccessfully pitched by the Historic Preservation Ordinance Task Force was tightening parking standards for new business, such as restaurants, that would like to open in a historic building. To apply for relief on parking requirements, applicants have to conduct a parking demand study if they’re short 15 spaces. The Task Force’s proposal would have lowered that threshold to 10 spaces.

Councilman Peter Blake said he opposed that measure because he believes restaurants will be more successful than retail stores because of the increasing popularity of Amazon and other online retailers.

“If anything, a restaurant puts more of us inside the historic building to enjoy it,” he said. “Retail is dead in this town and it’s not coming back any time soon.”

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said Blake’s assessment of Laguna Beach’s retail climate isn’t accurate.

“I’ve talked to restaurant owners who say there are too many restaurants right now, and if you take a look at the restaurants that are struggling, they say this [new restaurant] is happening here and it becomes an issue of being a food court,” she said.

Larry Nokes, a Laguna Beach attorney representing several homeowners challenging the historic preservation ordinance, said he was pleased to hear the City Council committed $66,000 to cover the cost of historic assessments for homeowners looking to remodel. Many residents have complained that these assessments are too expensive and constitute unfair penalties for owning a home on the city’s historic resource inventory.

Nokes said he believes it’s not necessary for the city to conduct a comprehensive EIR to change the historic preservation ordinance.

“I don’t believe the environmental impacts are going to be significant because they’re taking steps to preserve houses that are on the historic resource inventory,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to getting it completed and have a nice new ordinance the isn’t so hard on people.”

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