Opinion: Before We Start Yelling Again, What is a Historical Resource?

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By Dan Rosenthal

With the recent filing of a lawsuit against the City by Village Laguna and others, the issue of historic preservation has once again bubbled to the surface of the Laguna Beach political swamp. But before we start yelling at each other again (really?) it might be helpful if we all understood what a historical resource is under California law. 

Section 15064.5 of the California Code of Regulations and Sections 5020.1 and 5024.1 of the Public Resources Code tell us:

  1. A historical resource property must meet at least one of several specific criteria, including its being associated with historic events or people, or having great architectural, artistic or archaeological significance.
  2. A historical resource property must have gone through a public review process held by the lead agency (i.e. the city or state) to either place it on the state or local historic register. The purpose of this review is to see if a property meets one or more of the criteria listed above. In Laguna Beach, the Heritage Committee does the review and makes a recommendation to the City Council.
  3. A property may also be considered a historical resource if the city or state formally determines that it is, but only after undertaking a public review that applies the State’s criteria and evaluates all the evidence, both pro and con including that presented by the property owner. Only after the review and finding that the “lead agency’s determination is supported by substantial evidence in light of the whole record” can the property be considered a historical resource.
  4. A property is presumed to be a historical resource if it has been included in a valid survey (inventory). Since Laguna’s 1982 inventory was not updated every five years as required by law, properties on that document are not automatically presumed to be historical resources. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be treated as historical resources, it just means that they can’t be until they have gone through the public review process.

As shown, under California law, only the federal, state or city governments can make a property a historical resource, but only after having gone through a public review process. In Laguna Beach, therefore, only those properties that are on the National, State or Laguna Beach Register, or have been otherwise designated by the city as a historical resource qualify to be treated as such under CEQA. This is nearly identical to the definition of historical resource in the proposed new ordinance.

In last week’s letter to the editor, Village Laguna’s President, Anne Caenn made some statements that run contrary to the facts.

  • She says that they are suing the City because they believe that the new historic preservation ordinance would have a substantial impact on historical resources. Since historical resources are only those that are on valid lists, in what way does the proposed new ordinance negatively impact any of those properties? It doesn’t.
  • She claims that the new ordinance would empower property owners “to decide for themselves if their properties are historic.”  Not under California law they can’t.
  • She says that “buildings recognized as historically significant since 1981 are somehow no longer historic.”  Note there is no legal definition for the term “historically significant.” The California Office of Historic Preservation website specifically says that even though invalid, properties on the 1981 inventory should be considered as potentially eligible to become historical resources.

Other aspects of the Village Laguna position are well reasoned and if implemented would increase the strength of our historic preservation policy. Most importantly, the City itself must clearly state the procedures by which properties will be considered as historical resources

Relying on facts and not impassioned pleas will help tone down misleading rhetoric, and might even provide a starting point for meaningful dialog.

Dan is a member of the Laguna Beach Heritage Committee Member and former chairman of the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Ordinance Task Force.

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