One need not have strong feelings about historic preservation to be astonished by the Council’s vote on Sept. 29 to support Larry Nokes’ interpretation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as it applies to historic resources, against the advice of the City Attorney.
I have no personal animus toward Mr. Nokes, and of course he should have his say with everyone else. But he lacks expertise, and CEQA is an enormously complicated statute. Inaccurate claims in the past make it impossible to accept him as an authority. To cite just one example, as recently as a Sept. 10 memo to the Council, he stated that the city “illegally places the burden of proof on the unwilling property owner to prove that the house is NOT an historic resource,” when the property is not already a mandatory or presumptive historic resource (p. 3). Whatever one’s feelings about this practice, it is not illegal; it is in fact commonplace in cities across California with similar preservation protections.
I believe it was irresponsible of the Council to reject the impartial advice of its City Attorney and CEQA expert, who disagreed with Mr. Nokes’ interpretation. Unlike Mr. Nokes or, for that matter, the preservationists’ CEQA attorney Deborah Rosenthal, who also refuted his position, the City Attorney is required to give objective legal advice and to act in the best interests of the city. Council should have trusted its objective expert rather than a partisan.
Why didn’t the Council trust her then? A majority of the Council made clear they want historic preservation in Laguna to be entirely voluntary. Regardless of one’s position on this issue, residents should be concerned that the Council has put the city in real legal jeopardy for what appears to be a political position on property rights. The desire to eliminate protections for historic resources has nothing to do with legal obligations under CEQA. CEQA does not mean whatever the Council wants it to mean.
If you are wondering why I don’t succinctly summarize the Council’s decision on the Sept. 28, I urge you to look up the motion; it is too long to print here. Staff brought the issue of CEQA interpretation to the Council for “clarification.” Instead, Laguna residents got a combination of muddled legal thinking and wishes for the future and little help for the Task Force that will shortly resume its work.
Catherine Jurca, Laguna Beach