Heritage Forum Outlines Benefits of Historic Home Ownership

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach Heritage Committee hosted a panel Tuesday, including two architects and a Realtor, to explain the benefits of owning a historic home in town. Laguna’s City Council is currently pursuing a streamlined historic preservation ordinance that will make it easier for property owners to maintain and remodel their homes.

The inaugural Historic Residential Project Forum was held in conjunction with Heritage Month, and the panelists were Architectural Designer James Henry, Jr., Architect Todd Skenderian, and Realtor and former Design Review Board member Loraine Mullen-Kress. The three panelists recalled their experiences rehabilitating, expanding, and selling historic homes in Laguna Beach.

“For quite a while, we’ve been listening to the public discourse filled with many myths and hostility,” said Linda Morgenlander, a panel moderator and Heritage Committee member. “The frustration led to the desire to do something positive and informative instead and keep the dialogue productive and inspirational about historic homes.”

One of the myths Henry and Skenderian tried to debunk is the notion that historic homeowners are prohibited from modifying their homes.

As an example, Henry displayed before-and-after photos of his work on a cottage at 380 Anita Street, where he designed a second-story addition with a balcony that connected the historic residence and garage. The young family that hired Henry still lives there six years after construction concluded.

“It’s a pretty good example of how a historic property can remain as it was,” Henry said. “It functions well as a modern home but still retains all of its historic character.”

Skenderian recalled his restoration of the Kyle family cottage at 445 Linden Street, which was built in 1915, making it one of the oldest hand-built homes in Laguna Beach.

“The owner came to me and wanted to pursue a remodel and restoration project,” Skenderian said. “She was uneasy, hesitant, reluctant. But her hesitancy wasn’t so much about what we would have to go through from a constructability perspective, but what we would have to go through from an approval perspective.”

In this case, the contractor preserved and repaired most of the home’s elements by using family photos from the former owner. They installed a new foundation and encased utility lines that previously ran along the home’s exterior. Skenderian also said the owner wants to add a small powder room and laundry area that would not be allowed on a new home because of the lot’s size and required setbacks.

Clark Collins, a panel moderator and chairman of the Heritage Committee, listed the historic preservation ordinance’s benefits for those who maintain a historic home:

  • reduced on-site parking requirements
  • building permit and planning fees refunded
  • building code deviations relaxed
  • setback flexibility
  • density bonuses
  • official recognition with a plaque
  • reduced property taxes to fund maintenance under the Mills Act
  • the ability to add up to 50 percent more square footage without bringing the historic structure into compliance with the building code

Morgenlander said city staffers should assemble a guidebook that can simply explain these benefits to homeowners.

During the question and answer part of the forum, Councilwoman Toni Iseman suggested that city planning staffers meet with homeowners planning to demolish part or all of a historic home to explain the benefits they would lose if they move forward. She also recommended that the Laguna Beach Board of Realtors should educate all of its members on the benefits of owning a historic home.

In her experience as a Realtor, Mullen-Kress said there is no evidence to support the belief that owning a home on the historic inventory makes it worth less than similarly-sized, newer homes.

“Realtors have a saying in Laguna, ‘Charm sells,’” Mullen-Kress said.

She added that Laguna Beach is famous for its cottages and it’s not uncommon for her broker preview events at historic homes to attract more than 100 real estate agents.

To be approved for property tax relief under the Mills Act, homeowners have to agree to contract with the city on what maintenance they plan to do and how they will do it. Laguna Beach has approved 83 Mills Act contracts as of Tuesday, and is reviewing applications for an additional 18 contracts, Mullen-Kress said.

Beyond the financial and regulatory benefits of owning a historic home, Henry said historic homeowners should find comfort in knowing their home’s aesthetics will be fashionable for the foreseeable future.

“You end up with a house that’s a classic,” he said. “It’s not going to be trendy. The horizontal wood siding will not go out of style in 10 years.”

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