Council upholds demolition of home

A well-scripted presentation failed to convince the City Council to overturn the Design Review Board's approval of the demolition of a ramshackle South Laguna house on the city's historic inventory.

The council voted 3 to 1 to uphold the board's approval. Councilwoman Toni Iseman participated in the appeal and was barred from voting on the fate of the house known as "Stonehenge."

Both the vote by the board and the council were swayed by the testimony of two historians that the house no longer had the architectural integrity to make it eligible for the inventory, due to illegal demolition by a previous owner and subsequent deterioration.

"It is sad what happened to this property," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson. "I admire people who continue to try to restore old houses, but this one doesn't look like it once did."

The house was built in the 1920s by the Skidmore Brothers, early Laguna Beach real estate entrepreneurs valued for innovative development for the time.

Twenty-three speakers spoke in the 90-minute hearing, the majority affiliated with Village Laguna and/or the South Laguna Civic Assn. They challenged the conclusions of the hired historians.

"There is no disagreement that there has been a loss of integrity at the Guy Skidmore house because of illegal demolition," Iseman wrote in her appeal. "This disagreement is what to do about it: require the owner to repair the damage or to allow him to destroy all the structure, or something in between."

Property owner John Meekhan said he was aware that the house has been modified many times during its history and that the city's Heritage Committee opposed demolition.

"I hired the city-recommended historian Andrea Galvin, and she told me the property had no historic value," Meekhan said.

The Heritage Committee asked for a peer review, and historian Jan Ostoshay agreed with Galvin, but the committee stuck with its recommendation against demolition.

"The applicant's historical consultant argues that the loss of integrity of the historic structure due to illegal demolition is the reason to completely demolish it," speaker Charlotte Masarik said. "We disagree, because we have seen houses successfully rehabilitated in Laguna Beach."

Plans to rehabilitate the house were submitted to the city by a previous owner in 2009 but were never acted on.

Demolition opponents also found the legal justifications to be wanting.

Attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley opined that the council must include an environmental impact report in its consideration of the demolition of the house or alternatively exempt the project from the California Environmental Quality Act if it denies the permit for demolition and design review approval.

Brandt-Hawley, whose practice is focused on environmental law in the public interest, wrote that council should base the historic integrity of the house on its condition in 2009, before the most recent illegal demolition occurred.

However, the council was advised by City Attorney Philip Kohn that its decision should be made on the current condition.

"The house is an old lady who has been undressed, but I think she can be reclothed in period style," said Councilwoman Verna Rollinger, who voted against the demolition.

Mayor Jane Egly said reconstruction would result in a replica that would have no historical value.

"This building was damaged and it was done illegally," said Ann Christoph, a board member of Village Laguna and the South Laguna association, and a former mayor. "It was a crime, and the public loses if the house is lost. "

Asked if further action was being considered to block the demolition, Village Laguna President Ginger Osborne said the opponents had no plans at present.

"There is recourse," said Christoph, but she did not elaborate.

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