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Laguna takes a step toward making historic preservation voluntary

A view looking east of the historical 1930’s “house on the hill” currently owned by Marie Voss that
A house on Laguna Canyon Road that was built in 1930, pictured in 2014.
(File Photo)

Laguna Beach’s draft historic preservation ordinance moved a step closer this week toward becoming incentive-based and voluntary — moves that could one day strip protections favored by preservationists while also making it easier for property owners to make modifications.

After a couple of hours of comments from residents on both sides of the issue, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to perform an initial California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) study of the proposed ordinance. CEQA is a state law the requires cities to identify — and then try to avoid — decisions that could harm the environment.

RELATED STORY: Revised historic preservation ordinance heading to Laguna council »

Supporters of the draft complained the initial environmental study was unnecessary and would delay the process, possibly until July 2020 at the earliest, while some opponents argued the draft would never withstand environmental review anyway.

Laguna Beach Community Development Director Greg Pfost said he and the city attorney agreed the CEQA analysis is required.

“As much as I’d like to see this thing be converted to voluntary as quickly as possible, I think we have to do some kind of CEQA initial study,” said Mayor Bob Whalen. “I think if we don’t, we’re going to get sued.”

There are 852 historic structures

The proposed ordinance would eliminate an inventory that earmarks 852 properties as historic, a designation that restricts certain modifications in the interest of preserving the community’s character.

“What the ordinance is going to do as a voluntary ordinance is potentially take away some of those protections,” Pfost said. “That act … has a potential effect on both the cultural resources in town as well as the physical environment in town. That is really the true reason why we need to move forward, at least with the initial study, to identify what those effects are and then determine what type of environmental process we need to do.”

The draft ’s opponents — including Preserve Orange County, which circulated an opposition letter to council members before the meeting — argued that the ordinance would not comply with CEQA guidelines and should be abandoned.

The letter also referenced the likelihood of “post-adoption litigation by concerned community groups.”

Krista Nicholds, president of the advocacy organization’s board of directors, said it is too early to decide whether to take legal action, but wanted the city to be aware of the risk.

“The city is … delegating what is properly their role to a private property owner,” she said. “That’s our concern. And it leaves them open to legal challenge.”

Age of a property may not matter

The council also agreed to a task force recommendation to eliminate a property’s age as a requirement for the city’s official historic register.

The city’s senior planner, Martina Caron, said the draft ordinance included additional criteria to analyze whether a property should be considered a historic resource.

Other task force recommendations for streamlining — aligning the city’s historic rating system with the state’s and allowing an applicant to simultaneously apply for incentives and acceptance to the historic register — got the go-ahead.

Officials also agreed to change the municipal code to exempt historic properties from some elements of the design review process required when property owners seek permission to make modifications.

Under the current law, properties on the historic inventory or official historic registry must meet several requirements before they can be altered or demolished.

The council was undecided about what to do with 21 properties — including Hotel Laguna and the village movie theater — listed in Laguna’s General Plan. They would need historical assessments before any alterations were made.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow suggested removing the properties from the draft definition and leaving it to city staff to determine how the properties would be included, or not, in the CEQA study.

Pfost said in an email Friday that staff is working to address those properties “consistent with council action for the ordinance to be voluntary.”

Other task force recommendations to change a parking incentive and create a historic preservation fund to help homeowners restore, maintain and improve their properties, were denied.

“Why should the city and the taxpayers have to pay for someone’s historical home to be remodeled?” Councilman Peter Blake said. “That makes no sense to me.”

Whalen asked city staff to return with more information about potentially hiring a historic preservation planner for the Community Development Department. Councilwoman Toni Iseman supported the suggestion, saying the employee could help residents understand the historic register’s incentives.

“There are tremendous benefits that we want people to know,” Iseman said. “I want somebody at the city who’s knowledgeable enough to let somebody say, ‘I don’t care what benefits I have, I want off.’ ”

Instead of hiring someone to explain the incentives, Dicterow suggested providing residents with a list of resources.

Several residents spoke against the voluntary nature of the draft ordinance, saying it would strip necessary protections.

Jahn Levitt said she has lived in her 107-year-old home, which was once occupied by novelist John Steinbeck, since 1979. The previous owner preserved the character of the property, she said, as will her family.

“History is a continuum and all of us owners are only temporary,” Levitt said. “One owner who chooses to demolish ruins that continuum forever. My son will keep our cottage as it exists so a small thread which binds our community together will remain intact. I hope this council would do no less to preserve our treasures.”

Others said they appreciated easing the regulations in the name of property rights.

“I walk through all these cute little cottages every day,” said Cindy Shopoff, co-owner of Shopoff Realty investments in Irvine. “I appreciate all of you who have tried to keep this sense of village in the community, but the sense of village doesn’t mean penalizing the people who live in these houses.”