Expert: City's historic inventory list should be reduced

Although a city-hired consultant is suggesting removing 216 structures from a list of historic houses and commercial buildings in Laguna Beach, some residents want more off the list — namely their own properties.

Property owners said during a public meeting May 15 that they were alarmed to learn that their houses were included on the city's historic inventory, possibly restricting their remodel and demolition options. The meeting was called to apprise residents of the consultant's report.

Consultant Jan Ostashay said about 114 of the 216 properties suggested for removal from the list either don't exist anymore or don't meet the criteria to be a historical resource in California or Laguna. She also found 13 structures that had been demolished and 14 that need to be researched further to determine whether they still qualify to be part of the inventory. Many of the homes could not be accounted for because of problems like incorrect addresses.

The list of historic properties was created after a county team surveyed Laguna in 1980 and 1981 and decided on 852 structures that pre-dated 1940. It has not been updated since.

The City Council in 1982 recognized the inventory as the best representative examples of historically significant architecture in Laguna Beach.

Structures were assigned one of three letter ratings: E represented structures with outstanding historic architectural integrity; K structures had very good historical integrity; and C buildings contributed to the overall character and history of a neighborhood but may not be unique in and of themselves, the city's website says.

The inventory provided the basis for the council's eventual adoption of the Historic Preservation Ordinance, meant to protect the city's cultural heritage.

For this update, Ostashay and colleagues photographed properties from the public right of way. They delved into Laguna Beach Historical Society archives, books and pamphlets, maps, photographs, previous studies and surveys, city and county property records, and the city's general plan. And they consulted with city staff.

One of the goals was identifying properties that are no longer eligible for the historic register — which is one notch up from eligibility for the historic inventory list — because of alterations or demolition, while recognizing properties that remain eligible despite changes, according to the city's website.

About 188 of the inventoried properties are on the city's historic register, to which homeowners can volunteer their properties for inclusion, according to the city's website.

Properties on the historic register receive perks like fee waivers for building permits, fewer required parking spaces and reduced property taxes as incentives to owners to preserve, maintain and improve the structures.

When it comes to the inventory, any changes to a property must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and the Secretary of Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, according to the city's website.

Resident Jeff Benedick doesn't necessarily want the added benefits that would come from scaling the ladder to the historic register. He would rather demolish his house and start anew.

Benedick purchased property in north Laguna in 1998, intent on tearing down the house, which isn't his primary home, and building a new one. He said that when he bought the property, nothing in the city's file or real property report indicated that the house was on the inventory.

The city didn't include notification of inventory status until property files could be accessed on a computer, sometime after 1998, said acting zoning administrator Nancy Csira.

Benedick, who has lived in Laguna for 34 years, didn't learn that his house, which has an E rating, was on the inventory until a 2010 meeting with city staff at the property.

"I don't want to add on to the house," Benedick said in a phone interview. "There is no significant value in the architecture. If it was a charming home, as others are in Laguna, maybe I would approach this differently. But it's very simple in how it's constructed."

Architects visited the house and came to similar conclusions, said Benedick.

Part of the update is identifying properties eligible for National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historical Resources while taking into account CEQA guidelines and local context.

For Laguna Beach, Ostashay and city staff consider associations with important historical events or significant people, the importance or rarity of the property type, and whether the architectural style is distinctive or the work of a master architect or builder in determining if a house has maintained its historic integrity.

Benedick said he wouldn't have purchased the property had he known it was part of the inventory.

"I feel like it's the city's responsibility to accurately keep file of the residences [on the inventory]," he said. "It should be on file at all times."

Csira said staff has answered all of Benedick's questions over the past four years while "explaining the benefits and the best way to go about preserving his property."

Ralene Strauss encountered a similar dilemma.

She and her husband purchased property in 1996 and did not know the house was on the inventory. As with Benedick's property, nothing in the file at the time indicated the status of the house, which is not Strauss' primary residence.

"It's a beautiful house, but we want the freedom for my children [to make alterations] if they inherit it," she said. "It's becoming uncomfortable to live in in winter. It cannot be heated with single-wall construction. I would like to be free to [tear] the house down if necessary."

Being on the inventory does not prevent a homeowner from demolishing a building.

In 2006 the City Council amended the Historic Preservation Ordinance to require Design Review Board approval for proposed demolition of a building or structure listed on the historic inventory, according to the city's website.

The Heritage Committee must provide input to the board on how demolition would affect the neighborhood's character, according to the city's municipal code.

Ostashay and staff will prepare a final report, alert property owners, and hold public meetings with the Heritage Committee and the City Council, which would need to approve the updated inventory.

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