Opinion: Do the Right Thing – Laguna Beach and Historic Preservation

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By Catherine Jurca

Anti-preservation groups Let Laguna Live and Liberate Laguna have a new friend— Laguna Neighbors—which represents an evolution in local opposition to historic preservation. A Let Laguna Live email identifies Daniel Rosenthal as Laguna Neighbors’ founder. “Fanatic preservationists” as Rosenthal writes in a March 12 column, are ruining our town, not by violating individual property rights but by “hurting Laguna families.”

This is a forceful statement. No one wants to hurt families in or out of Laguna. But Rosenthal misleads and misstates facts. As a member of the Heritage Committee, a body that should help property owners avoid adversely impacting historic resources, Rosenthal, along with his platform, exemplifies how Laguna fails both families and historic properties.

Laguna Neighbors was born out of a lawsuit filed against the City for unlawfully exempting from environmental (CEQA) review a project involving a designated historic resource at 369 Hawthorne. Rosenthal believes it is wrong to enforce CEQA mandates because the property owners are a family with long ties to Laguna. But he believes it is always wrong to enforce CEQA for historic resources, because he wants preservation to be voluntary.

The Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition joined this lawsuit for one reason: even if we prevail in our litigation against the City’s changes to its historic preservation program, it won’t matter, if the City continues to ignore CEQA for individual projects. The effect will be significant loss of Laguna’s historic fabric.

Rosenthal doesn’t understand that city approval of a project is no guarantee it complies with CEQA; thus most of his column simply points out that various city decision-makers thought the project was just fine. But it wasn’t fine.

The owners’ historic preservation consultant found that the project did not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards. “Based on that report,” Rosenthal states, “the Kirbys changed their plans to make them compliant.” Except the new plans were not compliant. The consultant’s major recommendations could not have been clearer: do not demolish the one-story extension; the addition “should not wrap around the existing house” (“Historic Impacts Memo,” August 17, 2018, p. 11). These and other recommendations were ignored. Another qualified preservation professional reviewed the revised project and concluded that it failed to conform with the Secretary of Interior’s standards and would adversely impact the historic resource. These expert opinions trigger CEQA review.

The problem is not simply that staff and officials ignored objections raised at multiple hearings, but that even with such flagrant rejection of expert opinion, the responsibility for raising them fell to the public.

Residents should insist the City follow the law. Instead, the City of Laguna Beach insists on an indemnity clause holding property owners responsible for legal fees in the event of a CEQA lawsuit. Even though the suit was filed against the City, not the Kirbys (a distinction lost on Rosenthal), the City has made the Kirbys responsible for its bills, thus shouldering none of the risk for its CEQA violations.

Finally, the Laguna Neighbors website discloses confidential settlement discussion between the Kirbys’ attorney Larry Nokes and the petitioners’ attorney. This is highly improper and counter-productive. We respect confidentiality and will only respond that we reject and are confounded by the mischaracterization of the settlement discussion with Nokes. We must wonder what he told the Kirbys.

The Kirbys’ case is being used not only to wage but to raise money for yet another preservation war in local media, according to Laguna Neighbors’ fundraising page. Laguna’s historic preservation process can and must be repaired. Rosenthal and Nokes cannot lead that effort.

Catherine is a professor of English at California Institute of Technology and a spokesperson for the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I’m the back alley neighbor of the Kirbys, and a co-founder of Laguna Neighbors (lagunaneighbors.org). Please check out our website and see for yourself what the Kirby family have been through to make a home in an historic property where they plan to be for the rest of their lives. Ms. Jurca and the Coalition lawyer are effective advocates for their point of view. That does not make them right, which is why there are two related lawsuits. One is against the City over the revised historic ordinance, and the other is against the Kirbys and the City. The common issue is CEQA, which has to be a very badly written law to be subject to so much litigation. Ms Jurca states “Laguna’s historic preservation process can and must be repaired.” Laguna Neighbors wonder what exactly is broken? Any process can be improved, which is why we spent five years revising our historic ordinance in a participatory, democratic fashion. (Only by Laguna standards is that a rush to judgment.) And if we still have a “broken historic process,” as Ms Jurca claims, where is the proof? Dan Rosenthal and I live near the Kirbys and take considerable pride in owning homes that are way older than we are, and I’m 77. Can any fair-minded person look around our town and tell me that we have been neglecting our historic heritage? Well, that’s what these lawsuits are attempting to prove, and if the Kirbys have to be collateral damage, it’s a price Ms Jurca and the Coalition are willing to pay in the name of CEQA doctrinal purity. The lawsuit against the Kirbys may be legal. But Laguna Neighbors think it is immoral.

  2. Chris Quilter, your comment confuses me. Why do two separate lawsuits mean that the Coalition is wrong? There are two different lawsuits because there are two separate issues: first, the general problem of a dramatic change to the historic preservation ordinance, and second, a significant problem with an individual project involving a designated historic resource. According to the Laguna Neighbors website, the owners of the property purchased it, knowing it was on the Laguna Beach Historic Register, so the key questions are: did the City follow the law and did the proposed project comply with CEQA? Why is it immoral to insist that projects in Laguna comply with the law? Laguna Beach is amazing, showing that the community has not neglected its historic heritage — but the whole point of the lawsuit is that the City of Laguna Beach recently changed its ordinance so that it is no longer obligated to continue to respect and preserve that heritage. You question why the process is described as broken. If it weren’t broken, surely someone — staff, the Heritage Committee, the DRB — would have clearly alerted the owners and the rest of us that the Kirbys’ architect was making changes that disregarded the advice of their own preservation expert. It is sad that the City’s failure to perform its duty and legal obligation has made the owners into what you describe as “collateral damage.” You are misplacing blame when you attempt to kill the messenger. Clear processes, and adherence to the law, will save the City, and all property owners, time and money.

  3. I have ONE question for Ms. Jurca: who is paying you? And how much? Lawsuits are expensive, so you must have rich friends. Yet they remain anonymous. Why?

  4. Ms.Jurca, I respect that you have an opinion but it’s just that, an opinion. Hopefully you read Doug Cortez’s column on this subject of historic preservation, it’s a very enlightening opinion!
    Here are a few FACTS about LagunaNeighbors:
    1. 4 of the 6 founders of Laguna Neighbors own what I call “ older houses with character” that were built in the ‘20s & 30s!
    So it’s a big stretch to call us an anti-historical preservation group.
    2. All of us live within 2 blocks of 369 Hawthorne Road
    3. I ,Patrick Gallis, a long time Laguna resident, am the founder of Laguna Neighbors and it’s the largest donor to date. I live in a home built in the 30’s and renovated in 2005 .
    4. The Kirby girls call me Grandpa Pat
    5. I got suspended from Nextdoor for asking the president of Village Laguna(PAC) if she knew who the current members of the community “Coalition “are?
    6. My mission is simply to make Laguna property owners aware of this precedent setting lawsuit.

  5. Let Laguna Live and Liberate Laguna are not anti preservation groups, they are local organizations trying to preserve their property rights constantly under attack by people like Catherine Jurca. I view this woman as a hostile academic who hides behind CEQA to terrorize local families. People like Ms. Jurca do not care at all about CEQA, they care about power and trying remove any kind of say or input from the actual property owner. CEQA needs drastic revision to protect all property owners, especially single family homeowners from individuals and groups like Ms. Jurca and Village Laguna. Take a look at all of the vacant buildings, their fingerprints are all over our deteriorating downtown. Stop using CEQA as weapon Ms.Jurca.

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