“Old is not necessarily historic.”
Ilse Lenschow, DRB member
“A replica is not heritage… it does not have a connection to history.”
Mayor Jane Egly
Preservation of Laguna’s historic resources is important and well meaning local organizations espouse that many older homes have “historic” merit. At issue is when opinions differ over whether a structure truly qualifies to be a historic resource, either by possessing physical integrity, for its period of significance, or association with a historic figure.
Inclusion of properties in Laguna’s historic inventory was undertaken through a casual “drive-by” observation in 1981 from a public right of way and often without the knowledge or consent of the owner.
Larry Nokes, Laguna Beach attorney, notes, “Some property owners are still surprised when they discover that some well-meaning stranger placed their home on the inventory. Some people like being included. Others are startled to find that, by virtue of their property’s inclusion on the inventory, they are subject to the control by others who wish to dictate what they build.”
Such was the case when my client, John Meehan, wanted to remove the existing, but largely demolished home on his property. He recounted at six separate hearings, from Heritage Committee, Design Review, and City Council, that he is neither a builder nor developer but simply found a property where he wanted to build his dream home.
Meehan’s research uncovered that the original structures had been subject to numerous remodels and additions. Further, Galvin Preservation Associates, city recommended architectural historians, determined the existing structures no longer had the physical integrity to be a historic resource.
Preservationists argued that even in disrepair Meehan’s property was entitled to status as a legitimate historical resource if restored. But Nokes rebutted, “To claim historical status is an effort to deprive the owner of his right to use his own property, and to force him to build a replica of an old looking house.”
Nokes continued, “When architectural historians evaluate a property and it fails to meet the required standards, then unquestionably it cannot be entitled to the deference afforded to historical structures.”
This argument is exactly why definable standards have been developed on a national, state, and local level. There is no question that deserving structures should be protected as historic resources; likewise, ineligible structures can be protected at the discretion of the property owner.
Many lamented at recent Design Review and City Council hearings, that “it has come to this,” leaving it to the city to decide whether a structure could be demolished. The majority of the City Council decision makers ruled that the structures at 31381 Coast Highway were no longer historically significant due to the alterations that had eroded their original appearance. Even if a link existed to a historic figure, the structures would still fail to qualify as historic resources because they no longer retained sufficient structural integrity.
DRB chair Michael Wilkes concluded, “I think that we’re in a state of balance here. And there are some projects that perhaps erroneously were added to the Inventory. The best I can tell, in 1981, this project (31381 Coast Highway) was one of those mistakes.” Perhaps the solution is to reconsider the inventory, to ensure worthy projects are included, but always with the property owner’s consent.
As for me, I’ll echo a comment I heard at the City Council hearing… “Rather than the property’s best days are behind it, I believe its best days are still to come.” See you next time.
Steve Kawaratani is a 60 year resident of Laguna Beach. He can be contacted at 949.494.5141 or [email protected].