Village Matters

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Historic Preservation, Working or Not?

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

That’s the question the Heritage Committee, Planning Commission and City Council will be struggling with in the months to come.

The city’s historical preservation consultant has been examining the inventory of historic properties that was prepared in 1981. Questions have been raised; how did this inventory come about? Was it just some crazy people with clipboards quickly looking out the windows of their cars? Far from it, this effort was systematic and consumed the efforts of consultants and community volunteers for over a year.

Funds for surveys came from the U.S. Department of Interior with matching amounts from the state and county and it was done with a standardized methodology supplied by the state.

A Historic Survey Advisory Board appointed by the City Council met monthly and supplemented the work of the consultants.

The board included community members with diverse professions and backgrounds–Carol Adams, real estate, Joseph Andrus, plumbing contractor; Mary Burton, electrical contractor; Les Chatham, real estate; Kenneth L. Brott, photographer; Kathleen Davisson, landscape architect; Trudy Grossman, interior designer; Bea Whittlesey, former planning commissioner; Roe Joan Gruber, travel agent; Eric Jessen, planner; Ken Lauher, jeweler; Dan McMann, architect; Helen McPherson, real estate; Margaret Roley, counselor; Doris and Bill Shields, business owners; Arnold Hano, writer; John Ballew, architect; and Jack Weston, architect.

Local historian Karen Wilson Turnbull (who wrote and illustrated “Castles and Cottages of Laguna,” and the “History of Three Arch Bay”), Kathy Les and Hal Thomas of Heritage Orange County prepared the community summary, mini-histories of neighborhoods, along with photographs of each building, addresses and brief descriptions. They also noted 42 properties eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1981, the city council, consisting of Howard Dawson, Sally Bellerue, Neil Fitzpatrick, Kelly Boyd, and Wayne Baglin adopted the city’s first Historic Preservation Element.

The element described the prevalent building styles in Laguna Beach. It created the classification system we have today—Excellent (E), Key (K), and Contributive (C). It introduced the concept of a city historic register that would be made up of eligible properties listed at the request of owners and approved by the Council. There would be an incentive program for historic register properties.

In 1986 the first historic preservation ordinance was adopted directing Design Review to include consideration of historic factors. In 1989 a more elaborate historic preservation ordinance was enacted. At that time buildings that were on the register were protected and were eligible for incentives. Buildings on the inventory were not protected, but the incentives were intended to encourage property owners to put their buildings on the register.

Then in 1991 the world of historic preservation changed in California. The 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), was amended to apply to historic and cultural resources.


Here in Laguna though, that change to CEQA remained undiscovered until 2005. An “E” rated house was proposed for demolition and a letter from a historic preservation attorney pointed out that CEQA compliance was required. City staff looked into the matter and agreed. From that time forward, the city applied CEQA procedures to proposed changes to properties on both the register and the inventory.

Because of that change in CEQA, the inventory, which started out as a purely informational list, became a list of properties that were subject to additional requirements. (CEQA requires an evaluation an initial study, an evaluation of the historical significance, and further evaluation if the proposed changes don’t comply with historic preservation standards.)

At several recent meetings of the Heritage Committee, some owners whose properties are on the inventory objected and wanted to “opt out” of that list. However, that would not remove the property from the umbrella of CEQA. If a project is a historic resource, on the inventory or not, it is subject to the same requirements of CEQA.

Working or not? We are travelling rough roads at the moment, but here is an encouraging note.

One property owner pleaded with the Heritage Committee and Council to remove his “K” rated house from the inventory. He wanted to sell the property and felt the historic designation was an impediment to sale.

The house went on the market as a “K” rated historic property and was sold after just three days, for 106 percent of the asking price. (Independent ad, May 15, 2015) The new owners are thrilled to have a historic property and are pursuing involvement in the historic preservation program and its significant incentives.

Historic preservation can work both for the community and for property owners. With enthusiasm we can find ways to save our remarkable heritage and build community at the same time.


Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former City Council member.





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