Preserving Character Proves Elusive


By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent

If owning a historical home in Laguna Beach is like collecting art, the city wants to add another layer of protective glass.

“A lot of people think it is tightening property rights, but it’s preservation,” said Heritage Committee Chair Linda Morgenlander.  “The problem is the process has been flawed for so many years.”

That process, under review for several years, could get a fix, as revisions to the Historic Preservation Ordinance were presented to the Planning Commission March 15.

Currently, the ordinance provides guidelines on how changes may be made to properties in the city’s Historic Register, but not to properties deemed a historic “resource.”

The proposed ordinance outlines a process to identify every home as possibly historic, and provide a streamlined process while also protecting architectural heritage.

Michael Boone, a member of the Heritage Committee, says the revisions will protect every home of significance.

“You can’t cherry-pick certain homes that were done in a survey 20-30 years ago,” Boone said.  “The whole city has to take part in this.”

Boone says the revisions will apply to all homes reviewed for historical significance when owners seek a permit. Character, historic events, notable past residents or architects are just a few of the criteria considered.

The proposed process will help property owners understand whether their property is subject to historic resource restrictions under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, before they initiate improvements.

“The ordinance is there to create this guidance overlay that will help DRB process their drawings and plans and get through it,” Morgenlander said.

The revisions also call for another evaluation of properties already on the city’s 1981 Historic Inventory, examples of historically significant architecture.

Some of those homeowners told commissioners they want the option to be removed, citing higher costs and constraints associated with remodeling and upkeep due to the designation.

“The people opposed to this are those who have been included involuntarily on this inventory,” Chamber of Commerce President Larry Nokes told the commission, “an inventory the city says is invalid but continues to be written in their lives and they don’t want it.

“Eminent domain is a meaningful way to take somebody’s property away from them and preserve it as a historic structure. The problem is you have to pay them for it.  In this case, they are not paid for it.”

Resident Andy Alison voluntarily put his 1922 Craftsman at 194 Acacia Street on the Register in 1996. But today, he has written letters to the city to remove it without avail.

Revisions to the current ordinance will allow homeowners to apply for a re-evaluation, but only if their property no longer qualifies as historical, and at a cost.

“Now under the new ordinance it says I would have to ‘prove’ with evidence that the property no longer retains historical integrity and does not meet the criteria. The application to remove it is going to cost me $1,155. It’s absurd,” Alison said.

Because Alison has owned the property since 1994, he figures he would realize no benefit from the incentive offered to historic homeowners under the Mills Act. Mills Act contracts require a reduction of property taxes in exchange for the continued preservation of the property.

“I’m not taking a benefit,” he said.

Some also argue a historic designation limits the development potential of a property, thus limiting its value.

Laguna Beach real estate agent Bill Rolfing, who has a pair of historic cottages on the market at 315 Mountain Road for $4.6 million, says historic property takes a special buyer.

“The restrictions on historical homes in Laguna Beach and Mills Act homes must be accepted with the understanding it is a one-of-a-kind and to be preserved,” Rolfing said.

Homes on the 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.

Boone says he wants the city to take it a step further.

“We could allow them to do what no one else gets to do,” Boone said. “The spirit is to try to truly get as many benefits as possible to these people who offer their historic homes to keep Laguna charming.“

Planning commission chair Sue Kempf said she wants to consider residents’ concerns before the commission makes a recommendation.

She asked staff to describe the consequences of abolishing the inventory or property owners who opt out. “What if we just use the Register and incentivize people to do historic preservation on homes?” Kempf said.

Another review of the proposal is set for April 19.

“Laguna is a very rare little community where you have an enormous legacy of architecture still intact,” Boone said. “That charm comes from its architectural legacy.”


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