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Where Some See a Blessing, Others See a Curse

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Ross St. Clair, grandson of Aubrey St. Clair, the renowned Laguna Beach architect who designed such prominent structures in town as the City Hall, the Fire Department and Laguna Beach Water District, is all for preserving his progenitor’s legacy. Yet he now finds himself in the odd position of trying to “un-protect” one his grandfather’s buildings.

The North Laguna home last occupied by his late mother has been remodeled beyond any semblance of its original footprint, St. Clair told the City Council last week, adding that his grandfather would “roll over in his grave” at the idea of that house being held up as an example of his work since it is “not a reflection of what he designed at all.” Even so, the city’s recently updated Historic Resources Inventory gives it a K or “key structure” rating, the second highest, which places restrictions on how the property can be renovated, frustrating St. Clair’s plans to fix it up and sell it in order to settle his mother’s estate.

“Believe me, Ross, you are not the only one questioning what’s going on,” Council member Kelly Boyd told St. Clair at the time. And Boyd may just be the answer to his prayers.

“I’ve made this my project of the year,” said Boyd when reached later for comment. “I pick a project and I go after it,” he said, which is what he did with the recently adopted view ordinance that took affect last December.

Boyd sees a measure of unfairness to homeowners in the city’s current historic preservation policy, since they must abide by the parameters set for homes on the city’s Historic Inventory even though they had no say in the process. Some homes on the list have no historic value and should be removed, said Boyd, an option not currently available to them. “We have to get this straightened out,” he said.

Created in 1981 from a survey performed by county and city officials, the Historic Resources Inventory became a reference document for the historic resources element adopted as part of the city’s general plan. The city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance, adopted in 1989 to preserve and protect the city’s cultural heritage, also recognizes the inventory and its classification system.

Inclusion in the inventory allows property owners with certain ratings to voluntarily place their home on the city’s Historic Register and qualify for certain perks. These include reductions in required parking, setbacks and fees, so as to offset development restrictions imposed by their historic status. But even if homeowners eschew the Historic Register, if their home is on the inventory, they still face restrictions.

For the first time in three decades, the city recently updated its inventory of historic properties, in part to bring it into compliance with certain state and federal standards. Historic consultant Jan Ostashay surveyed the properties and presented her findings at a public outreach meeting last December meant to bring historic homeowners up to speed. Due to stricter state and local guidelines and modifications made to buildings, 87, or about 17 percent, of the 500 plus structures included in the original 1981 survey no longer retain historic significance, according to Ostashay.

Despite efforts to enlighten them, many historic property owners remained confused about the consequences of their property’s inclusion in the inventory. Some simply wanted clarification of the restrictions and benefits of historic status. Others, like St. Clair, believed their homes should be crossed off the list.

Attendees were told that residents cannot remove their homes from the historic inventory, but they can appeal their rating, which dictates the level of restrictions that apply to homes of historic status. Further, those wishing to contest their property rating were told to contact city planners by a deadline extended to Feb. 20. Planners hoped to finalize the survey and present suggested revisions to the ordinance to City Council this spring.

Downgrade requests submitted after the deadline will be forwarded to the Heritage Committee for review, according to Director of Community Development Greg Pfost. However, the Heritage Committee may request input from the city’s historian, and the property owner would have to pay for that report, Pfost said, though he noted that process may change as the revisions of the inventory and ordinance are completed.

Some residents see benefits in a historic rating: the Heritage Committee’s January agenda included a resident seeking to upgrade their status, for example. And certainly the city recognizes the value of historic preservation.

As stated in the Historic Element: “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… Through the Historic Resources Element and the Historic Preservation Ordinance, the City incorporates historic preservations as a major component of its local planning process and recognizes its importance to maintaining the quality of life of its residents, as well as promoting its attraction to visitors.”

Others see roadblocks.

St. Clair, for his part, said that his realtor told him that the K rating was going to be a problem when they sell the property. And when he asked city planners about what he could and couldn’t do to renovate the house, he said he basically came away with the impression that he wouldn’t find out until he actually submitted plans. “You get into all these little grey zones,” he said, “and you don’t know what will be accepted until you do it.” What he really wants is to downgrade his status or get off the list.

That’s where Boyd comes in. As he sees it, the survey to put the homes on the inventory in the first place was questionable, and now when homeowners seek a change in status, the city asks them to send photos. Instead, someone should be sent out to look at the properties for a proper assessment, he said.

“We have to get this resolved and let people that want to bow out, bow out,” said Boyd, who hopes to have an agenda item on the issue sometime this month, possibly at the March 17 Council meeting.

“We’ve got to look at this thing and make it right,” he said.

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