Hopes of Preservationists Dashed


Coastal Panel Approves Live-Work Law

By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy

In two matters involving Laguna Beach, the Coastal Commission approved revisions that govern a controversial artists’ work/live plan in Laguna Canyon and demolition of a historical house known as Stonehenge whose architectural integrity had been compromised by lax code enforcement.

In both cases Laguna residents offered impassioned testimony to counter the position of staff, but the Coastal Commission ultimately agreed with the staff’s suggested actions but pointedly criticized Laguna Beach’s planning authorities for failing to protect historic structures.

The first issue stemmed from a May 2012 decision by Laguna’s City Council to approve a local coastal program amendment, adding an ordinance that allows for development of artists’ work/live projects.

The state’s Coastal Commission asked for some modifications to the ordinance in November and Wednesday’s hearing in Long Beach was to determine if the ordinance was consistent with the Coastal Commission’s intent.

Artist Louis Longi
Artist Louis Longi

Though sculptor Louis Longi’s 30-unit project was not on the agenda, opponents and proponents took the opportunity to press their positions anyway.

“It is not legally adequate,” insisted Laguna Beach resident Audrey Prosser, claiming the action was not consistent with the city’s land use plan or specific plan for the area.

“This Commission’s responsibility is to protect what little natural beauty we have left,” said another resident, Rita Conn, protesting that the City Council’s ordinance was “paving the way for development.”

John Montgomery, Laguna’s director of community development, predicted the project “most likely” will be appealed to the Coastal Commission if it is approved by the City Council, but pointed out the matter under consideration is merely a zoning ordinance.

Longi pleaded that the ordinance was put in place to help artists who are losing their foothold in Laguna Beach and leaving town for lack of affordable studio space.

John Hamil, vice president of the Laguna Canyon Property Association, complained that his neighborhood had not been involved in the process for adopting the ordinance, a claim reiterated by Hallie Jones, executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

In response to a query by Commissioner Martha McClure over noticing about the ordinance,  Montgomery said required noticing was done with a newspaper ad.

The commissioner’s voted unanimously to support the legal determination of the ordinance.

They voted the same way over an appeal to block property owner John Meehan from demolishing the ocean-front complex at 31381 S. Coast Highway, whose historical significance was recognized 33 years ago.

The appellants, Village Laguna and the South Laguna Civic Association, contend the historic resource should be rehabilitated, while the Coastal Commission staff maintained that it “has lost its architectural integrity and is not historically significant,” despite a historic listing by the Environmental Coalition of Orange County in 1981. After South Laguna annexation in 1987, the city added the property to its own historic inventory in 1991, giving it a “K” (key) rating.

Meehan spokesman, Laguna Beach attorney Larry Nokes, said that repeated modifications to the structure over the years had robbed it of its architectural integrity and cited two architectural historians hired by Meehan reached the same conclusion.

Currently, the house lacks any similarity to the one constructed in the 1920s, which is why Laguna’s Design Review Board and City Council approved its demolition, Nokes said.

Laguna Beach resident Barbara Metzger pointed out the City Council’s failure to protect a historic resource, citing two illegal demolitions in 2009 and 2010 that contributed to the property’s deteriorated state. In allowing the demolition to proceed, Metzger said the Commission would set a precedent that property owners could destroy dwellings first and then seek permits.

Another local resident, landscape architect Ann Christoph, presented evidence of the property’s historical significance, beginning with the Skidmore brothers’ development of nearby Coast Royale in 1924, including their own homes, which included Guy Skidmore’s home, Stonehenge. So-named, Christoph said not for the English landmark but for it’s overhanging cliff on the oceanfront side.

Christoph spoke of the Skidmores’ dedication to public amenities, including beachside parks and picnic grounds and that they were stepsons of Nate Brooks, a relative of one of the town’s 1889 homesteaders.

“Many times landmarked properties have come before us that have deteriorated,” said Commissioner Jana Zimmer, lamenting that the Commission lacked the authority to mandate a remedy. She suggested that the “city did not adequately step up to the plate on the enforcement end of these issues.”

“To me, Laguna is at fault because their code enforcement officers are not doing their job,” agreed Commissioner Martha McClure, who urged the city’s Heritage Committee to start documenting buildings that are being compromised. “I would suggest that the city of Laguna Beach be ashamed of their code enforcement officer,” she concluded.

Nokes was asked why development permits as well as a demolition permit were not sought at the same time. The owner wanted to forego the expense until the demolition appeal was resolved, he said. Plans drawn up in the interim have since been appealed to the Coastal Commission, he said.

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