Opponents of Preservation Rules Solidify Resistance

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By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent

The flags atop the design review story poles still standing at 31987 Coast Highway are as faded as Hany Dimitri’s enthusiasm for the $6.3 million property.

“I have paid hundreds of thousands to do this. They are not following their own processes, they are violating their own procedures,” Dimitri said. “It’s ludicrous.”

Old story poles mark the layout of Hany Dimitri’s proposed new home at 31987 Coast Highway. The City Council deemed the property not historic, clearing the way for the owner to move forward with demolition plans of the 1930s structure.

Dimitri’s battle over the historicity of his ocean-front property ended at Tuesday’s special City Council meeting, when elected officials ultimately voted that the property was no longer historic, clearing the way for Dimitri to demolish it and rebuild. When Dimitri bought the 1930s-era home in the spring of 2016, records showed it was neither on the city’s historic register or its 1981 historic inventory.

“There is nothing about the setting of the house that is the same, the vibe of the house that is the same, 80% of the windows are vinyl windows,” said Larry Nokes, Dimitri’s attorney.

Last fall, already months into planning and permitting for the new home, city planners urged the Dimitris to get a historical evaluation of the existing house, and his demolition plans were ultimately stalled by the Design Review Board because they believed it could be historically significant. Dimitri appealed, saying they had not proved it was a historic structure and that its restoration would involve adding 14 stabilizing caissons requiring removal of half of the house to allow for drill access.

“He put in hundreds of thousands in tests and exploratory studies demanded by the city, makes several site visits with the city, before the city raises the issue,” said Nokes. “This is just a clown act. It costs people a ton of money and it’s got to stop.”

Nokes contends that Dimitri’s struggle is just a glimpse of what’s to come if proposed revisions to the city’s historic preservation ordinance are passed. As currently drafted, the revisions will require every home built before 1955 undergo evaluation for its historic value when owners seek modifications requiring a permit.

“We have been going to Heritage Committee meetings and voicing the same concerns,” said architect Marshal Ininns.  “We have not been heard.”

Ininns and Nokes are a part of the newly formed group called Let Laguna Live, which Nokes calls an informational corporation of which he is president. The group opposes including homes on the city’s historic inventory without the property owner’s consent, calling the 1981 inventory list outdated and invalid. Nokes says it was incorporated with the California Secretary of State’s office in March and is in the process of establishing a board of directors. The group have not undertaken any fundraising, Nokes says.

Ininns says has the group has 100 members opposed to the draft revisions to the historic preservation ordinance, which that evolved from hearings over the past two years. The concepts, which underwent review by the Planning Commission this past Wednesday, April 19, still need City Council approval.

Let Laguna Live wants residents to have the option to remove their property from the historic inventory, citing higher costs and constraints associated with remodeling and upkeep due to the designation.

Homes on the city’s historic inventory are classified as “E” for exceptional, “K” for key, or “C” for contributive, all eligible for reduced parking requirements and waived building and permit fees that are otherwise only available to homes on the historic register.

“The hallmark for the whole historic preservation process has to be a voluntary incentive-based program, where people go to the city and say, ‘for money, I will enter into a contract with you to preserve my house’,” Nokes said.

Nokes’ group is not the only one opposed to the ordinance’s revisions.  The Laguna Beach Board of Realtors maintains that an involuntary historic designation not only limits the development potential of a property, it also limits its value and makes potential homebuyers wary.

“Ideally what we would like to have is two categories, historic or not historic, that would be our ideal world,” said Michael Johnson, a former president of the Board of Realtors.  “It is not something that should come up when it goes to DRB, when a neighbor points it out.”

One of the new additions to the proposed ordinance is a requirement that agents or sellers disclose a property’s historical status.  Johnson says that’s also a problem because outdated property records are often missing the information, or its status is simply unknown to the owner. He says the onus of the historical record should fall to the city to provide in a real property report, not the homeowner or realtor.

“Really what we are looking for is certainty,” Johnson said.  “The city should know what is historic or not. We need a new complete survey done by a historian of all of the properties in town.”

Members of the Heritage Committee, who helped craft the proposed ordinance revisions, declined to comment on Let Laguna Live’s stance, deferring to city planners.

In a staff report, senior planner Martina Caron says the inference that a historic designation hurts a property’s value or limit development potential is not necessarily true. “There may be some limitations on the types of improvements made to a historic property, but that varies widely upon the condition of the property and its historic value,” Caron said. “In some cases, there may even be tax advantages to having a historic property.”

 

And, Caron added, exiting from the city’s 1981 historic inventory will not absolve concerns surrounding a historic designation. “Elimination of the inventory does not give a ‘free pass’ for development; all future projects would still need to be reviewed by the city for historical resource impacts,” says Caron in the report. “Essentially, the homes that were on the inventory would be reclassified into the ‘unsurveyed’ group of homes more than 45 years of age.”

Let Laguna Live members packed this week’s hearing over the draft historic preservation ordinance, which will be reviewed again by the Planning Commission in June .

“This ordinance is going to impact a lot of people in a big way,” Nokes said. “We want to make sure people know this is happening and how it is going to affect them.”

 

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