Opinion: Leave Laguna Residents Alone

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By Larry Nokes

Last week, Village Laguna filed a lawsuit against Laguna Beach to invalidate the new proposed Historic Preservation Ordinance. On July 14, 2020, the City Council approved Resolution 20.049, settling the matter last summer by adopting the negative declaration for revisions to the city’s existing historic preservation program. Councilmember Iseman cast the lone “no” vote. Now Iseman’s group, Village Laguna, seeks to reverse the overwhelming sentiment voiced by residents that private homes shall not be deemed “historic resources” without homeowner consent, unless otherwise required by law. The new ordinance encourages owners to voluntarily participate in preservation and provides significant incentives for those who opt to commit their homes to this purpose. The ordinance recognizes that a home is the single most valuable asset most people own. Laguna homeowners should be alarmed that Toni and Village Laguna – again – seek to force private homes into a historic designation without the owners’ consent.

The inventory was initially created in the 1980s with the express promise that a listing on it would have no impact on residents’ control over their homes. Residents were leery because they had no say over whether their homes would be included in the list, and if they were, what adverse impacts might accompany inclusion. After a literal “drive-by” assessment of a house, it could be placed on the list – and there was nothing the owner could do about it. Still, residents were promised this was not significant and that it would not impact their ownership rights in any way.

Despite these representations, on March 20, 1989, Village Laguna brought a motion to the Planning Commission to amend the General Plan and the Laguna Beach municipal code to require that homes listed on the inventory be deemed “historic resources.” On May 2, 1989, the proposed ordinance made its way to a city council hearing. According to newspaper accounts, 200 residents appeared at the city council hearing to protest the new proposed law ginned up by Village Laguna. After hearing their concerns, Mayor Bob Gentry reaffirmed that “any private property placed on the list is done at the pleasure of the property owner, and not the city.” Even with an overwhelming rebuke by the city council, Village Laguna devised a new strategy to force private property owners into compulsory preservation, showing up at design review meetings and ambushing unsuspecting homeowners with claims that their homes were “historic.” This set the unsuspecting homeowner off on a spiral of expense to prove that their private home was not historic, rather than forcing Village Laguna to establish that it was. 

Since 2015, hundreds of Laguna residents came together on over 40 occasions to voice disapproval of the existing historic ordinance and its application. The residents made the case that Village Laguna has misrepresented the entire inventory program regarding unfair burdens to the owners. The residents pushed back and successfully reaffirmed that preservation of a private home is “at the pleasure of the owner, not the city.”

The 2020 Ordinance clarifies that participation in the historic preservation program is entirely voluntary unless otherwise required by law. Incentives encourage property owners to participate if they choose. There are no barriers to participation for those wanting to take advantage of the preservation program. The homes simply need to meet the criteria.

Even now, Village Laguna can try to force private residences into historic status. The difference now is that Village Laguna must follow the law and bears the burden of proof and the expense of establishing historicity – instead of the homeowner having to prove that their private home is not historic.

Our new 2020 ordinance is fair and just. It encourages voluntary preservation while eliminating a pernicious tool of Village Laguna that forces residents into real estate servitude against their will.

If Laguna Beach wants to put “residents first,” this is the place to do it – by respecting property rights. I urge you to contact Village Laguna leadership (949-472-7503 or email [email protected]) and tell them to knock it off. Let Village Laguna leadership know that if you want to participate in the preservation program, you can elect to do so. It is time for Village Laguna to stop muscling city residents and get their noses out of our homes.

Larry Nokes spent five years meeting with residents, hearing their stories, and helping lead to the adoption of Resolution 20.0429, the historic preservation ordinance adopted in March 2020. The law makes it voluntary for an owner’s home to be made a historic resource. He is a partner at the Laguna Beach law firm Nokes & Quinn.

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