Laguna Beach family coiled in lawsuit between city and historic preservationists

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Laguna Beach residents Ian Kirby, Cherlin Kirby and their five- and seven-year-old daughters are the owners of an embattled project at 369 Hawthorne Road. Courtesy of Cherlin Kirby

A dispute between Laguna Beach neighbors over a home addition that would typically simmer has entered the courtroom and pages of the local news media.

Ian and Cherlin Kirby, owners of 369 Hawthorne Road, have pursued an addition to their two-story 1925 Colonial Revival house for four years. In February, a complaint filed in Orange County Superior Court named the Kirbys—along with architect Todd Skenderian and Laguna Beach—claims city officials failed to follow the California Environmental Quality Act when they approved the remodel.

The Kirbys planned a 1,020-square-foot addition to the home’s first and second stories, an attached garage, and an elevated deck with a pool and spa. They knew the home was listed on Laguna Beach’s Historic Registry and still wanted to restore it, partly because Cherlin Kirby grew up next-door while attending Thurston Middle School and was friendly with the original owners, she said.

“Our goal is preserving that quaintness but add architecture that will allow [the home] to remain for the next 100 years,” Cherlin Kirby said.

Decades of deferred maintenance has left the home’s foundation rotting, roof leaks, without installation, and vulnerable to earthquakes and fires. The couple lives in a condo next door to the historic property with their five- and seven-year-old daughters.

“The city abused its discretion and failed to act in the matter required by law in approving the substantial alteration of 369 Hawthorne Road based on a categorical exemption from CEQA, without preparing an Initial Study or conducting an environmental review process,” Petitioner attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley wrote in the complaint.

Among other remedies, Brandt-Hawley asked a judge to enjoin city officials, the Kirbys, and their agents from all construction and pre-construction for the planned addition while the petition is pending.

As a condition for approving development projects, Laguna Beach requires applicants to indemnify them from future litigation, City Attorney Phil Kohn wrote in an email.

California law authorizes an award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in cases that enforce an important right affecting the public interest, Joe DiMento, a professor of law at UC Irvine wrote in an email.

“The City of Laguna Beach has decided to shift the responsibility for the legal fees from themselves, the Respondents, those who violated CEQA, to Real Parties in Interest, in this case the Kirbys,” Johanna Felder, a Coalition member, wrote in an email.

In an email to the Independent, Felder denied that the Coalition is suing the Kirbys, claiming Laguna Beach and the City Council are the respondents in the lawsuit. In fact, the Orange County Superior Court names Ian and Cherlin Kirby as participants in the case. The Coalition asked a judge to block the Kirbys from breaking ground on the remodel, according to court records. This project has already cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars, Cherlin Kirby said.

This flurry of activity has some letter writers asking who are the supporters of the two unincorporated associations behind the legal action against the Kirbys.

The Laguna Beach Historic Preservation earned headlines in January when it sued Laguna Beach over the voluntary aspects of the revised historic preservation ordinance. A case management conference is scheduled for April 14 in Orange County Superior Court.

The group appealed a project at Laguna South Coast Cinemas to the City Council but withdrew the grievance after discussions with Rivian.

The Historic Architecture Alliance was “formed in public interest” after Laguna Beach approved the remodel of 369 Hawthorne. Its members include Dennis Sundman, according to court documents, who has owned the multi-family property at 377 Hawthorne Road since 2013. He shares the Kirbys’ northern property line.

“These are people who came to my rescue when they saw I was being ripped off,” Sundman said when asked about the Alliance’s membership. He referred additional questions to his attorney.

Individual historic resources are protected by the California Environmental Quality Act, as are natural resources like air and water. State officials seldom bring CEQA actions to ensure cities follow the law when approving developments. Since CEQA was enacted in 1970, unincorporated associations of concerned citizens have filed most cases to protect resources, DiMento said.

“Case law has long confirmed such associations’ standing to sue and their members’ constitutionally-protected rights of associational privacy,” the Coalition said in a press release

Ann Christoph, Johanna Felder, Barbara Metzger, and Verna Rollinger told the Independent that they’re members of the Historic Preservation Coalition. The four women are also board members of Village Laguna, which fiercely opposed the revised historical preservation ordinance.

“They are not representing [Village Laguna] in their participation in the Coalition. Like me, many of our members are involved in multiple organizations,” Village Laguna President Anne Caenn wrote in an email.

Catherine Jurca, a coalition spokesperson, is also a member of Village Laguna. The fact the two organizations share several members has generated letters asking who is paying the attorney fees.

A third unincorporated association called Laguna Neighbors organized within weeks and has purchased three full-page advertisements in the Independent, demanding the petitioners to drop their lawsuit. Pat Gallis, Mary Williams, Daniel Rosenthal, Chris Quilter, Cherlin Kirby, Ian Kirby are listed as founders on the group’s website.

Ian Kirby said he and his wife sought therapy for a year due to the psychological toll of the development process and ongoing litigation. They still plan to live on Hawthorne Road for the rest of their lives.

“I hope my children like me enough to live in the house next door [as adults],” Ian Kirby said.

Homeowners should consider their experience as a wake-up call to get involved in local government, Ian Kirby said.

“There’s just not a lot of time for families to be involved in city politics,” Ian Kirby said. “The people who run city politics are retirees, which is totally fine, but they’re not open to these younger families. We can’t be asleep at the wheel if we want our town to be good for our children.”

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Ann Christoph, Johanna Felder, Barbara Metzger, Verna Rollinger and Catherine Jurca, and to a lesser degree Mr. Sundman should all be ashamed of themselves! The Kirby family are doing the right thing for this home, the neighborhood and the city of Laguna Beach as a whole. Two words for you, “Adaptive Re-use”. Restoring this property, expanding the square footage and bringing the home up to 21st century standards is an admirable undertaking and should be fully embraced by all. The neighborhood itself is not particularly historic. There are a mix of architecture styles and properties. Similar properties exist in both the current and proposed state of the Kirby’s home. The only person that has a leg to stand on is Mr. Sundman who lives adjacent to the proposed expansion which may impact his balcony and view down the alley. I understand, however, that these concerns have been mitigated through the plan check process and changes were made. Why wouldn’t anyone want this beautiful historic home revitalized for generations to come? Frivolous, malicious, despicable – shame on all of you!

  2. My opinion? I think what this couple wants to do to this home would only be an improvement. They obviously have concern for maintaining the historical integrity, but the house needs repair to be made livable.

  3. This is so disgusting and just another example of the state of CA doing everything possible to avoid responsibility for it’s own moronic, incessant screwups and then making law-abiding, tax payers pay for their utter stupidity.

  4. I have no doubts that the petitioners here have nothing better to do than to live more luxuriously by depriving their neighbors of the things they desire. They win as they see those they see everyday lose. Envious shaudenfrued.

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