Opinion: Village Matters

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Good Guys or Bad Guys?

ann christoph

From the look of last week’s Independent the bad guys are Village Laguna and everyone who advocates for historic preservation. Somehow supporting historic preservation translates into being against children and families.  Just when Village Laguna is celebrating 50 years of saving the village character of our town for future generations someone is saying Village Laguna is against the very generations they’ve been thinking of all these years. Instead of community-oriented work being seen as laudable and essential to preserving a town now worth arguing over, it’s anti-family?

Historic preservation has literally become the poster child to push an anti-environmental agenda. The developer-funded organization, Liberate Laguna, supporter of Peter Blake and Larry Nokes for city council, can take advantage of organizations like Let Laguna Live, and now Laguna Neighbors to push their own anti-preservation agenda. If Village Laguna and other environmental and preservation supporters are mischaracterized with cute posters and anti-family accusations, all the better for Liberate Laguna in the next election. Defeating historic preservation could be their tool to accomplish their much larger goal—to disempower the city and open the town to redevelopment as they envision it. 

There are national and state criteria and laws for determining if changes to historic resources have been properly assessed, and the city has not been properly implementing them. Residents have raised issues with the city’s mishandling of historic preservation since at least 2005, and throughout the historic preservation ordinance hearings. Administrative remedies have been exhausted. The legal challenges were the last recourse. 

Ultimately the city’s neglect of historic preservation will lead to loss of historic buildings and deterioration of the treasured Laguna Beach village character. This is why historic preservation advocates are pursuing legal remedies. Not to punish applicants. Not to be against families. The historic preservation processes must provide consistency for applicants and members of the public, must be fairly applied, be clearly explained, and be legal.

History tells us that change, especially change that threatens the power structure or long-standing approaches, is often resisted and those who advocate for change are subject to denigration. That’s what’s happening now with the issue of historic preservation. The city has mishandled historic preservation for decades and now that members of the public are challenging their decisions and non-compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, there’s resistance. Unkind and untrue statements are spread about those who bring these issues to public attention. 

This has happened before in Laguna Beach. Arnold Hano, who was instrumental in keeping high rise buildings from walling off our ocean front, started the first campaign to preserve Laguna’s village character in 1971. That campaign for a 36-foot building height limit was hard-fought. The proponents of high-rise hotels didn’t sit back and agree without some forceful language and arguments against the villagers.  When Arnold ran for Council, some started a salacious whisper campaign against him.  Now we celebrate all his contributions and appreciate how important the restrictions on height have been to keeping Laguna’s charm. Change happened, and the rancor has been forgotten.

Jim Dilley, the founder of the Laguna Greenbelt, was considered an eccentric book-seller with wild ideas by some who were fine with a golf course, shopping center and more houses in the Canyon instead of preserving the open space. To them it was only progress and besides the Irvine Co. was going to build us a new school out there.  (This was an underlying thought when the School District voted to close Aliso School.)  Despite the naysayers Dilley kept pressing with his victory statements, documenting each step toward making the now-22,000 acre Laguna Greenbelt open space preserve a reality.

Dilley’s fundamental task was to change our image of ourselves and Laguna Beach as a community. To instill the idea that it was not inevitable that the picturesque landscape surrounding our town would be developed. To empower us to determine our own future. To build a vision of a town surrounded by natural open space. These were fundamental changes that were inspiring to many, but for others ran contrary to the “manifest destiny” of ultimate human manipulation of our environment for increase in wealth. Fortunately for Laguna, the inspirational vision prevailed.

Historic preservation advocates seek similar changes as applied to appreciation of our heritage and community character. Only then will keeping Laguna’s uniqueness and charm become inevitable.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately, this is another genteel expression of Village Laguna’s “us versus them” mentality. When Ann states “The city has mishandled historic preservation for decades,” she glides over the fact that Village Laguna dominated local politics for decades, and remains a powerful voice. More to the point, where is the proof?

  2. Here is her argument in a nutshell: We at Village Laguna know better. You won’t take our medicine voluntarily. Therefore, we will hold you down and jam it down your throat.

  3. Ann .. and Village Laguna .. are still missing the point. Opposing a mandated historic preservation program is NOT opposing historical preservation, or families with young kids. The state and federal programs are completely voluntary. A local voluntary program where no one’s home is forced into a “historical resource” or “landmark” status will NOT lead to the destruction of our city’s undesignated structures. Lagunans want to preserve their older historical homes. With generous incentives, including Mills Act tax reduction, homeowners will apply for registration under our local program. If they don’t want those incentives, they still preserve the charactre of their homes. For 40 years, most homeowners have avoided the “mandated” program Village Laguna created. Yet, almost all homeowners, who reject government mandates, have preserved their older homes (often with remodels under DR guidelines which limit mass, scale and preserve neighborhood character). Why? Because they chose to live in the older neighborhoods and love the historical character of those areas. These good people don’t need Village Laguna to help them with historical preservation. They know what they are doing.

  4. To respond to Chris Quilter’s question about the proof of the city mishandling historic preservation, the house at 31351 Coast Highway is a prime example. Even though the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) applied to historic resources since its inception and the Friends of Mammoth Decision (1972) the city didn’t know or didn’t recognize that. When an application would come to the Design Review Board to demolish a historic resource staff would tell the Board there was nothing they could do. The city had to allow the building to be demolished, according to staff. In 2005 the E-rated coastal estate home at 31351 Coast highway was at the Design Review Board for demolition and replacement with a modern house. It took a letter from historic preservation attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley pointing out that CEQA applied and that the city was required to go through the EIR process before making a decision to demolish. This was a wake up call for city staff, but even then they faltered at implementing a system addressing CEQA for the public, heritage committee and applicants that was comprehensive, understandable and consistent. This is why the public became so disillusioned with the whole process.
    The revised historic preservation ordinance started in 2014 was intended to address how CEQA would be incorporated into the city’s process, but instead the process became a forum for airing the complaints of how badly the city had been handling history preservation all those years. Instead of fixing the ordinance and making the city process easier and more fair, the council responded to public pressure for a “voluntary” ordinance. That’s why there’s the lawsuit. Historic resources are defined by objective criteria, just like other factors covered by CEQA. “Voluntary” means that individual owners decide whether or not they have a historic resource. Just as property owners don’t “decide” if they have a wetlands, an endangered species, a landslide, or steep slopes, etc. they don’t make the historic resource decision either.

    The good news is that the home at 31351 was preserved and restored, something that would never have happened if the CEQA process and the public had not intervened. Sometimes it’s not clear to property owners the significance of their resource until it’s too late. The CEQA process makes sure information for a sound decision is explained and evaluated.

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