A years-long process to revise Laguna Beach’s historic preservation ordinance and make it voluntary and more incentive-based is expected to take its next step March 5 when a draft ordinance goes to the City Council.
The meeting comes about 4½ months after a unanimous council decision to have staff design a voluntary ordinance, including recommendations from a historic preservation task force.
The proposal would eliminate a controversial inventory of historic properties, expand incentives for people to list their properties on the city’s historic register and do away with any age requirement for historic designation.
Under the draft, a property could be designated historic on the city’s official register only with the owner’s consent. That’s a marked change from the current practice, which relies on the 1981 inventory of 852 pre-1940s properties.
The ordinance would make no reference to the historic inventory. A new clause would add that the law’s intent and purpose is to “achieve historic preservation through the encouragement and promotion of voluntary means, consistent with the city’s original historic preservation efforts.”
The ordinance also would change the municipal code so some historic properties could be exempt from the city’s design review process for projects that typically are exempt for other properties.
Under the current law, people whose properties are on the city’s historic inventory or official historic registry must meet several requirements before changing or demolishing their buildings.
The involuntary aspect of those requirements has been a cause for consternation in the past four years as the draft ordinance rose through the ranks of the Heritage Committee, Design Review Board, Planning Commission and City Council. Some property owners have complained that they didn’t know their homes were considered historic until they tried to make alterations and ran into trouble with the city’s design review process for trying to change a historic building.
The staff report recommends expanding incentives for owners who volunteer their properties to be considered for historical designation, such as creating a historic preservation fund to help owners of single-family homes restore, maintain and improve their houses.
A property owner could apply for historic registration, reap the incentive benefits and work with stricter requirements for property alterations — or decide not to apply and forge ahead with the normal design approval process.
For the Heritage Committee to designate a property as a historic resource under the draft ordinance, the property would have to meet at least one of 10 criteria — for example, exemplifying the community’s historical heritage, embodying notable architecture or being in an iconic location. Under current code, properties that are not on the historic inventory have to be at least 50 years old and meet certain criteria to be entered on the historic register.
Jeff Benedick, president of Let Laguna Live — an organization that advocates for the voluntary, incentive-based ordinance — said he was caught by surprise eight years ago when he found out his house was on the inventory. He served on the council-appointed task force that worked on the incentives for the proposed ordinance.
“I’ve lived in this community for over 44 years now and I don’t want to see the character of it changed, but we have to look at it also in terms of progressively moving forward,” Benedick said. “How do we keep the character of our village but also not label every home that’s old as historic or try to preserve things as they are today?”
Laguna uses a unique rating system to determine properties that should be entered on the register. The draft ordinance proposes ditching the city’s letter ratings in favor of state status codes, which are based on numbers.
“What this is trying to do right now is streamline the process a little bit,” said Laguna Community Development Director Greg Pfost.
Another recommendation is the addition of a full-time historic preservation planner to the Community Development Department who would guide applicants and the city. The planner would explain the incentives to potential applicants, though it would be the owner’s choice whether to apply.
“The idea is not only to administer the program but provide advice and encourage people when they come in,” Pfost said.
Ann Christoph, who served on the task force, said the ordinance needed updating but that there were plenty of incentives already built into it. She said she was hoping for a stricter requirement for determining which properties to consider historic.
“To me, it either is or it isn’t,” Christoph said. “Just because one person owns it right now who decides that it isn’t a historic resource, that doesn’t mean it’s not.”
Until the draft ordinance is adopted — which the staff report estimates would be mid-2020 at the earliest — the task force urged the council to adopt interim measures. One is $66,000 for the city to continue covering the cost of historic assessments for the next two years. The other is $50,000 to pay for a consultant who would prepare documents for a California Environmental Quality Act review, which Pfost said is necessary for any new ordinance.