Historic Home Workshop Preserves Status Quo

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A Heritage Committee meeting preceded a two-hour public workshop on historic preservation Monday, Oct. 19, which again left over 30 attendees with more questions than answers. “I just want off this list,” said resident Eugene Isabella.

The list in question refers to the city’s historic registry of 291 properties, those sanctioned by the City Council, and the accompanying historic inventory, a roster presently under review and representing potentially historic or architecturally significant properties.

“We are looking at changing the ordinance, making improvements the public wants, and ensuring the law is followed,” said committee chair Rick Gold. Many of the attendees had interests in the discussion well beyond the scope of the evening’s agenda, which focused specifically on incentives available to some historic property owners. “We will discuss other topics at future workshops,” said Gold.

A request for historic status by the owner of a 50-year-old home designed by Laguna Beach architect J. Lamont Langworthy, noted for his mid-century modernist style, provided the opportune segue for discussion of the proposed revisions to the preservation ordinance.

The committee unanimously recommended Ginger Berga’s Langworthy-designed home at 1968 San Remo Dr. for addition to the city’s historic registry. “This is a property worth saving and the homeowner wants to do it,” said committee member Carl Iverson. “This should be the way that this process happens,” he said.

The committee recommended a designation of the Remo house to “E” or “K” status. E is for Exceptional buildings with outstanding historic integrity, or excellent architectural significance; while K is for Key with very good historic integrity and fine period examples.

Senior city planner Martina Caron, Community Development Director Greg Pfost and zoning administrator Nancy Caira walked the committee and residents through the current set of incentives available to owners of historic properties, such as waiving of permit and planning fees and deviations to building codes.

Under the existing preservation ordinance, only historic registry properties in two categories are available for the array of incentives. Revisions could potentially allow new incentives, but also allow currently excluded properties – such as those on the inventory — to be eligible.

“Tonight’s activity is about coming up with a potential wish list of incentives that could be offered under the new ordinance,” said committee member Michael Boone.

“The city could purchase my property,” said resident Jeff Benedict, bringing a roar of laughter from the crowd. “These incentives do not offset the cost; my home is devalued by 30-40 percent as a result of being on the list,” he said.

“We understand that owners want to be compensated for a restriction on their economic success that can come with historic designation,” said Boone.

Drawing the most attention was the property tax break offered under the Mills Act, “the single most important economic incentive program in California for the restoration and preservation of qualified historic buildings by private property owners,” according to the state Office of Historic Preservation.

Adopted by the City of Laguna Beach in 1993, the Act can substantially reduce the amount of property tax the owner pays over time based on historic registry status in exchange for the owner’s pledge to maintain and preserve the integrity of a historic structure. “The Mills Act is a powerful incentive because the designation follows the property, and the tax remains stable,” said Gold. Historic registry homes represent less than 3 percent of the city’s 10,821 existing homes, 40 percent of which are rentals, according to 2010 census information.

Property owner Brian Harper, whose Anita Street home was used to illustrate incentives during the presentation, reduced his tax liability to $3,400 from $8,500 under the Mills Act and benefitted from permit and planning fee reimbursements and modifications of parking requirements when building an addition. “It was a pleasure working with the city,” said Harper. “This was a win-win with the benefits and it keeps the historic Laguna feel.”

Currently Mills Act tax savings can only flow to historic registry properties graded “E” or “K” but not “C” rated structures, a designation for buildings that contribute to the overall character and history of a neighborhood, but may not be unique in and of themselves.

But the committee cited the possibility of expanding this option to historic inventory properties, those identified as potentially of historical or architectural significance.

A woman resident, who did not sign the register, found this idea anathema. “Incentives should be for properties on the historic register not on the inventory list,” she said. “The owner must make a commitment to preserving their property; owning a historic house is a privilege.”

Others suggested alternative possible incentives, such as density credit sales (much like carbon credits bought and sold between businesses, but in this case for allowing more density between property owners. Such a concept, Pfost said, “would not be out of the question, but would have to be explored because of potential impacts on the properties.”

In the end, Gold concluded that the city “needs to do a better job of explaining the incentives.”

The next workshop will be held Nov. 16 and will cover property ratings and historic criteria.

In the meantime, which properties are on the registry or inventory, can now best be determined by consulting the city clerk. “We are working on putting the list on the Internet. We will do that simultaneously when the new preservation ordinance is finalized in 2016,” said Caron. Currently, the directory of properties designated as historic is available from the city clerk.

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  1. I am happy to hear my San Remo residence may be protected. already “The Great Train Wreck” of Fred Langs’ has been destroyed. let me know if you need any documents or assistance. as I am still in business in Graton, CA

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