Opinion: For Whom the Law Matters

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By Catherine Jurca

The latest attack on historic preservation holds that the law is important—sometimes. Projects can get a pass depending on who the owners are. It holds that if Laguna violates the law, the opponents who presented detailed, fact-based objections should just get over it. And if Laguna enforces the law? Laguna Beach is a very beautiful and privileged and insular place; in our particular historical moment it is surprising to see newspaper ads insist that laws to protect historic resources should not be enforced, because Laguna must protect photogenic “families like this.”

Laws are supposed to be applied objectively and fairly, not driven by personality or popularity. Demographics and length of residency in Laguna should not matter.

What matters is this: for the demolition and expansion project at 369 Hawthorne, two qualified historic preservation experts, including the consultant hired by the owners, found that it did not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which means that it would significantly harm the historic house and the City is required to conduct an environmental review process under CEQA. The Kirbys had an opportunity to fix their project but did not; the problems were detailed at length, and still the City opted to approve it. Unfortunately, the only way to make the City comply with CEQA at this point was through litigation.

As a founder of Let Laguna Live, and favored Council candidate of the developer-funded Liberate Laguna PAC, the Kirbys’ attorney Larry Nokes has led the local effort for “voluntary” historic preservation. His letter last week asserted that the Kirbys’ project “went through the City’s prescribed vetting process,” as though that settles the matter. But here the process is the problem. The City fails to identify and mitigate impacts even to a voluntarily designated historic resource like 369 Hawthorne, after experts point out those impacts. The process fails to meet the requirements of CEQA—a state law. Even residents who are not particularly worried about the erosion of Laguna’s historic fabric should have a problem with this.

The language of supporting “young families” was introduced by DRB members who evaluated the project, not that long after Councilmember Peter Blake boasted that “DRB is… gutted” (quoted in Independent, April 1, 2020, expletive deleted). The organized “Save Our Families” campaign exploits that rhetoric. Nokes and Daniel Rosenthal have worked for years toward the goals of undoing Laguna’s historic preservation protections, making preservation voluntary and electing councilmembers (Blake successfully) who “reflect our views on property rights and historical resources” (Rosenthal column, Feb. 19, 2021). And thus the wholly predictable lapse in so-called transparency when it comes to the fixation on Village Laguna’s (fictitious) role in the lawsuit over 369 Hawthorne. Village Laguna is the dog whistle these people cannot help blowing. It is the sound of a crusade that involves a much larger and pernicious development agenda.

Rosenthal ends his latest column on a chilling note, especially for a Heritage Committee member: the petitioners should drop the suit because “there will be plenty of later options to keep a check on the City’s historic preservation protocols.” We hope not. It’s the City’s job to keep a check on itself. Rosenthal’s hint at the limitless future opportunities to challenge Laguna’s compliance with CEQA begs the question: who would he offer up as a candidate if the process doesn’t change? What sort of people would need to undertake an unlawful project to make litigation against the City acceptable? This is the main reason the “Save Our Families” ads are so unsettling. Everyone should be treated equally.

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

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Another diatribe by Cathy Jurca, the self-imposed arbiter of historical preservation and mouthpiece for Village Laguna’s new “coalition” In her latest fact-free rant, she immediately attacks the “photogenic” family that is being victimized by her lawsuit. Unfortunately they don’t fit her usual narrative as a “big developer trying to destroy Laguna” so she pathetically hurls some unfounded mud in the hopes that some of it will stick. Nice try!

    Not long after Jurca’s opening salvo, her political predator instincts kick into gear. She attacks Larry Nokes despite the fact that he’s worked for years to balance property rights on all sides of the issue. Larry’s rolled up his sleeves and worked with activists and residents to insure a balanced approach towards achieving resolutions. He’s known for treating people with respect. Jurca is unnerved by the fact that Larry, like the majority of our residents, supports voluntary historical preservation. She prefers that authoritarian activists like herself dictate our property rights. This hypocrite spends weekends in a remodeled mid-century condo on the beach and no, the building is not registered and was restored without an ounce of historical correctiveness. That’s ok with her, she spends most of her time in Glendale in her mid-century home. She has a lot in common with her bestie Johanna Felder who lives in a huge contemporary home built with multiple variances. “Everyone should be treated equally” Jurca exclaims! (unless it applies to them)

    Then its my turn. Yes, I f&$#g gutted DRB and am proud of it! I also facilitated the changes to the Planning Commission and am overseeing huge changes at City Hall. I’d like to abolish the worthless and politicized Heritage Commission. And yes, I’m working on breaking the stranglehold that Village Laguna has had on our city for decades and will continue to erode their influence (fictitious or real) until I rid this scourge from our community (was that a dog whistle, bark or bite?)

    Jurca disparages Don Rosenthal as well for suggesting the city and its residents question compliance with CEQA. Most would agree that CEQA is in desperate need of revision and has become a rallying cry for activists to sue on when they want to circumvent local laws and property rights.

    She ends her latest rant threatening our property rights by attacking City Hall for following the wishes of those who pay the bulk of the property tax in this community. FYI, they work for us and NOT for an out of town college professor and politically motivated activist with an axe to grind.

    Cathy, sorry the “save our family” ads are so “unsettling” and please spare us your self-righteous BS. Drop this bogus litigation against the Kirby family and our community!

  2. Dear Saint Catherine,
    If you are going to be the patron saint of CEQA compliance then you need to be honest and transparent about who is paying you and who is paying to fund the lawsuit. You cannot continue to conduct your ops against people you decide are not in compliance (an important word for you) while being cloaked in secrecy. Be open about the funding and who pays when you lose the case.
    I find your writing to be not only naive but completely devoid of compassion for the family that you and your anti property rights troops are greatly damaging with this abusive lawsuit. In your next piece why not just threaten other property owners with litigation if you do not agree with future city findings. It sounds like that is where you are headed. It is no wonder that public opinion is very much against your efforts.

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