By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy
A presentation of findings from a new survey of Laguna Beach’s historic resources devolved into frustration Monday night among residents owning these structures, confused as to what the city’s Historic Resources Inventory means to them and why they should care.
The inventory lists homes and structures of varying degrees of historic significance and provides the foundation for the city to enforce some degree of preservation of historic structures. The city is in the final stages of updating the inventory to comply with current state and federal guidelines for protecting historic resources.
Due to stricter state and local guidelines and modifications made to buildings, 87, or about17 percent, of the 500 plus structures included in the original 1981 survey no longer retain historic significance, Jan Ostashay, a historic consultant hired by the city to conduct a current field survey, said in presenting her findings.
The survey identified declines in every category of the city’s historic resource rating system, where E is designated as exceptional structure, K is for architectural integrity and C is for contributing to neighborhood character. The survey determined declines in E-rated structures to 68 from 70, 213 from 244 for K-rated structures and 138 from 216 for C-rated structures, Ostashay said.
Owners of the 500 or so properties remaining on the inventory were mailed a letter last month notifying them of a new survey underway and a Dec. 8 meeting, but that letter failed to explain the significance of a being a “historic resource homeowner,” what a property rating meant, or how a homeowner might discover their rating.
The 50 or so who attended the meeting Monday received some clarification on these points. Others may have learned of their home’s historic status when they purchased their home since that information must now be disclosed on the real property report, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Andy and Lesley Kettley, for example, came to the meeting knowing their building was on the inventory. They knew that meant restrictions since their plan to install vinyl-coated windows was thwarted by city code enforcers who mandated wood frames. Only at the meeting did they learn of the rating system. It turns out the Kettleys have an E-rated structure that they voluntarily could add to the city’s Historic Register, which would allow them to sidestep some development requirements and obtain property tax breaks through the Mills Act.
The state legislature approved the Mills Act in 1976, allowing cities to enter into contracts of 10 years or more with owners of qualified historic structures who agree to preservation restrictions in return for property tax reductions. The reduced tax bill is intended to offset the cost of maintaining or rehabilitating their structures.
The City Council approved use of the Mills Act in 1993 as an incentive to preserve E-rated structures and in 2006 extended the incentive to K-rated structures as well. Even so, many residents remain unaware of these benefits.
“I find it very confusing,” said Lesley Kettley. She and her husband left the meeting with the goal of heading to City Hall to find out exactly what benefits could accrue to them based on their status.
Many of the residents found it difficult to accept that their homes were listed on the inventory as the result of a survey and that they had no say in the matter. “I’ve been denied my due process,” said one resident.
The inventory serves as a planning tool to identify development projects subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, which imposes some development restrictions based on historic status, Ostashay said.
The state’s guide to historical resources says, “resources included in a local register of historical resources…are presumed to be historically or culturally significant for purposes of CEQA,” and thus requires the city to consider a proposed development’s impact on a historical resource. In 1992 the act was revised to emphasize the importance of preserving historic resources.
“I’m kind of astounded about people being so fearful about being part of program,” said landscape architect Ann Christoph, who said both her home and office are on the register. She said she’s had no trouble getting improvements to those structures approved, despite their historic status. On the contrary, their historic rating has only provided benefits and “has been nothing but a joy to me,” she said. “I think you would be happy to be a part of this program.”
Preservation of historic structures in Laguna Beach has been a work in progress since Heritage Orange County, Inc. in 1981 identified 852 pre-1940 homes and structures in a Historic Resources Inventory. That year, a historic resources element was adopted as part of Laguna Beach’s general plan, which relied on the inventory that the Council formally recognized a year later “as a listing of the best representative examples of historically significant architecture within the City of Laguna Beach.” The city also accepted the E, K and C rating system established in the inventory.
According to city documents, the historic resource element’s goal was adoption of an ordinance to preserve and protect the city’s cultural heritage. “A defining feature of Laguna Beach is its variety and number of older homes and buildings. If the positive and inviting image of Laguna Beach as a pedestrian community with a unique village atmosphere and significant aesthetic amenities can be retained, the City will continue to enjoy prosperity and increased property values,” the element states.
Even so, the city adopted its historic preservation ordinance in 1989, a century after its founding in 1887. That law established a voluntary Historic Register, allowing owners of structures on the inventory to apply for inclusion, and offering incentives to do so such as reductions in required parking, setbacks and fees, so as to offset restrictions imposed by their historic status.
The Historic Register now lists 250 structures, said Ostashay, with 19 from the inventory added during the current survey process.
The owners of the building under renovation at 222 Ocean Avenue, for example, sought and received E-rated status and inclusion in the city’s historic register. That led to the approval of their proposed restaurant use for the property since their historic status earned them a 75 percent reduction in the normally required parking spaces.
Ostashay and staff pointed out Monday that residents cannot remove their homes from the historic inventory, but they can appeal their rating, which dictates the extent of the CEQA restrictions that apply to all homes with historic status, whether on the inventory or the voluntary Historic Register. But only those on the Register reap the benefits. Anyone wishing to contest their status should contact city planners by Jan. 16 before they finalize the survey, which they hope to present to City Council next spring along with suggested revisions to the ordinance.
The impetus for a new survey was to bring it into compliance with current guidelines for CEQA and the California Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) and consistency with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.
The city is also attempting to mesh its E,K and C categories with OHP’s numeric rating system.
The city’s historic resources element states that there “is an insufficient awareness of the community’s historic resources and the economic and cultural benefits of their preservation.”
The public outreach meeting Monday was the third of a series of such meetings intended to bring historic homeowners up to speed. For more information and to view the survey, visit the city’s website.
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