Demolition work was stopped Wednesday on the historic Halliburton house in South Laguna, pending a review of the scope of the project.
The halt came in response to public accusations that proper procedures were not followed in permitting partial demolition of the home, and it required a special vote Tuesday night by the council.
The red tag will be in effect until the council meets May 1. A special meeting may be called if Community Development Director John Montgomery finds no valid reason for the work stoppage after his review.
"We have a big issue in historic preservation," said former Mayor Ann Christoph, still upset over the demolition of "Stonehenge," another treasured structure in South Laguna, and further distressed by the demolition on the Halliburton house, which is under new ownership.
"The new owner received a demolition permit to demolish the slab in the bedroom wing of the house, but that seems to have meant all the walls and cabinets and everything in the bedroom wing," Christoph said. "Our concern is the municipal code requires that demolition of any house on the historic inventory or register must be reviewed by the Heritage Committee and the Design Review Board and comply with the California Environmental Quality Act before a demolition can be authorized, and this demolition occurred without that happening."
However, interior demolition permits traditionally are approved administratively, according to Montgomery, who approved the permit.
"The characterization of the project by the property owner is a little bit different than the characterization expressed tonight," Montgomery said. "He insists his efforts are rehabilitation of the historic home.
"An interior floor slab was in a state that needed to be replaced. So he is basically replacing the floor slab in the interior. There was some exterior damage as well, and he is trying to repair that."
City Manager John Pietig said in order to repair the slab the walls and cabinets had to be removed.
In 1936, the house was constructed from concrete inside and out and is valued as architecture ahead of its time, as well as for the occupancy by adventurer Richard Halliburton.
"It needs to be protected," said architectural historian Allan Hess. "This is the most important modern house in Laguna."
Hess said a historian should have been called in before demolition was approved and started.
Councilwoman Toni Iseman said the plans she saw permitted demolition of just one room, not the entire wing. She was told by the new owner that the concrete had to be removed for plumbing repairs.
"This is the ultimate reason to step back and address how we treat our historical properties," Iseman said. "We all have a responsibility to protect them."
After Iseman spoke, City Attorney Philip Kohn advised the council that further discussion of the issue or action was not appropriate — because it had not been agendized — unless a vote was taken on the urgency of the matter.
The council voted 4 to 1 in favor of urgent action in order to approve the red tag, with Councilman Kelly Boyd opposed.
"The issue is whether the owner is going beyond what was permitted or is our policy deficient," Mayor Jane Egly said.
Montgomery stated flatly that the property owner did not exceed the permit.
"The plans that I reviewed clearly indicate the area to be demolished," Montgomery said.
Montgomery said he would discuss compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act at his meeting with the home's owner Thursday.
If Montgomery determines that the red tag was unwarranted, he will notify Pietig, who will advise the council. The council could then determine a course of action.