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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