Laguna's oldest home to receive alterations

Alterations to Laguna's oldest home, 154 Pearl St., will go forward despite the objections of Mayor Toni Iseman, who appealed the approval of the Design Review Board, and other critics of the project.

A council majority denied Iseman's appeal at the Dec. 7 meeting and voted to support the board and Heritage committee approvals of the removal and reconstruction of much of the existing house — the portions added onto the 117-year-old, two-room, oceanfront cottage in the decades since it was built. Twenty-one members of the public testified at the 1 ½-hour hearing, 14 opposed the project and seven were in favor.

"I voted for the project and I wish I could take my vote back," said Heritage Committee member Anne Frank.

The committee held five hearings on the project and the board held another four before approving the project on Oct. 28.

In her appeal, Iseman stated her belief that the house should be preserved in its entirety. She also stated that the decision-making process for reviewing the proposal and perhaps for other historical structures was flawed. It may have resulted in decisions that do not further the city's historic preservation goals.

She specifically objected to the choice of a consultant by the property owner, rather than city officials, to prepare the historic resource assessment and the impacts analysis required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

"The city should have its own experts," said Councilwoman Verna Rollinger.

Iseman also protested that the declaration of mitigated negative impacts was not adequate and an environmental impact report should have been required.

The mayor further objected to a private meeting between city staff, the owner's representative and consultant, and the consultant hired by the city for peer review.

Iseman was supported by a well-scripted procession of speakers, beginning with former Councilwoman Ann Christoph.

Village Laguna President Ginger Osborne condemned the opinion of the owner's preservation consultant that that the Harper family, who owned the home from 1883 to at least 1940, was not significant in Laguna's history. It was pointed out that Tom Harper is the architect of part of Villa Rockledge, which was accepted on the National Register of Historic Places, and six other homes on the city's inventory.

Harper had also lived in the Pearl Street house, although he did not design it.

The owner-hired consultant Margarita Wuellner, of PCR Services Corp., first concluded in her historical evaluation that the original building and any changes through 1940 were worthy of preservation. However after more physical analysis, Wuellner scaled back the period of historical significance to 1883.

A peer review by city-hired Andrea Galvin, of Galvin Preservation Associates, concurred that the historic resource to be preserved was the original two-room cottage, a conclusion with which Iseman and project opponents disagreed.

Limiting the period of significance to 1883 diminishes the historical importance of the rest of the building added before 1940, Iseman said.

Charlotte Masarik said at the Dec. 7 meeting that the city is not obliged to give authority to historical evaluation reports.

"In this case, the board should have accepted the [consultant's] report for the information that it provides, but rejected its conclusions," Masarik said. "We appreciate it not primarily as an example of a style, but because it has survived for so long and remained for so long in the possession of one family, because it is the place where a prominent Laguna Beach architect grew up and because we appreciate its quirky, unconventional looks.

"Its cultural significance should be considered as well as it architecture."

Heritage Committee member Bonnie Hano, who was absent when the committee approved the project, said the city has saved a lot of buildings because of the folks who lived there.

The vernacular beach cottage is listed on the Laguna Beach Historic Register and is rated E for Excellent — a distinction usually restricted to homes in good condition, which this home is not — according to structural engineer Neno Grguric.

Grguric opined that rehabilitation of the existing structure is needed: framing is undersized, walls have no seismic resistance and the lack of concrete foundations could be life-threatening in the event of a moderate to large-scale earthquake.

"I think the house is dangerous," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, who sided with Mayor Pro Tem Jane Egly and Councilman Kelly Boyd in support of the project. "It reminds me of the houses we moved to the canyon."

Speakers from the audience in favor of the project and in defense of the city's process included architect Anders Lassiter.

"I don't have a dog in this fight, but I did Casa del Camino and other preservation projects," Lassiter said. "The process is being attacked, but the council needs to trust its experts and staff — even though sometimes we don't like what they say."

Architectural designer and contractor Gregg Abel also spoke on behalf of the process.

"The historical system has problems, but it works," Abel said. "A lot of houses have gone through this. It is not easy and it is expensive. You have to respect anyone who takes on a historical preservation project and I support this project."

Attorney Lawrence Nokes, who reviewed the administrative record related to the approval and mitigated negative declaration for the project at the request of Steve Kawaratani, concluded that the city's rules and procedures were followed.

The project had been in the works August 2008. It is owned by Tresor. Application for a Mills Act agreement with the state, which could reduce property taxes to help pay for renovations, is pending the sale of the property.

The council voted 3 to 2 to support the committee and board approvals of the alteration and addition of square footage to the historic home. The council also approved the plans for a 1,494-squre foot, single family home to be constructed behind it. Iseman and Councilwoman Verna Rollinger opposed.

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