Destruction and renewal on Skyline Drive

The 1993 Laguna Beach fire disintegrated Ken Frank's silverware and bowling ball and his sons lost their baseball card collections, trophies and gloves.

"[I lost] everything personal, but financially it turned out to be a windfall for me," said Frank, Laguna Beach's former city manager, who lost his Mystic Hills home in the firestorm that began Oct. 27 on unincorporated county land before moving west into areas such as Emerald Bay and Three Arch Bay.

Frank, now retired, was one of hundreds of residents whose houses burned to the ground.

"My situation was different," Frank said, acknowledging that he lost valuables but adding that his loss wasn't as devastating as others'. "I had recently gotten divorced, and my wife took more expensive items and left me with old furniture."

Frank, who had a son in high school then, stayed with a friend for a week before moving into an apartment on Cliff Drive.

He also had a job, which helped him focus on other priorities and not dwell on the fire's effects.

"I had to get on with life, so that was probably good," Frank said. "I had a lot of friends who helped. They put me up for a week, bought furniture [for me]."

Multiple agencies cooperated to help displaced residents navigate the rebuilding process.

Frank had fire insurance and hired Morris Skenderian, a private architect in town, to design plans for his new Skyline Drive house.

Skenderian worked with several insurance companies and subcontractors to tally up clients' replacement costs for personal belongings.

"I was getting so many calls from people who were frantic, didn't know what to do," said Skenderian, who has conducted business in Laguna since 1972. "I had 50 people show up in my office a few days after the fire. We had an informal conversation about what it's like to lose your house and the devastation of the mementos and how tough that is.

"It was an opportunity to get to know who these people are and to understand what their loss was like. Ninety percent of them had never built a house before, nor had they known how they would recover damages from the insurance company.

"You have counseling sessions with husbands and wives, trying to make decisions they never had to make in their lives."

The claims process went relatively smoothly, and was more streamlined than in prior years, Skenderian said.

"They couldn't have been more nice or more friendly," he said of insurance company representatives. "In the old days, [the insurance companies] made you itemize [personal belongings], and they could only give you what you itemize. The way this went is if you had $100,000 in personal belongings, you got a check [for that amount]."

At the city level, staff handled a surge of building permit requests immediately after the fire, Skenderian said.

Frank remembered insurance companies setting up tents in city parking lots to handle all the claims.

The influx of requests required city officials to develop an organized process, which centered on design review rules.

"How could they fast-track this to get people through design-review?" Skenderian asked rhetorically.

Homeowners could replace their houses with 10% additional square footage in floor area and not go through design review, according to Skenderian.

The square footage of Frank's new house stayed about the same, but the outside looked different and builders enclosed a breezeway at the entrance.

The fire altered architecture of Laguna homes going forward; new houses had enclosed decks and stucco walls, Skenderian said.

"All the styles changed," Skenderian said. "Pretty much nobody built back exactly what they had before. The sizes of the houses got bigger and one might argue that was a change for the worse. Laguna prided itself on woodsy types of houses.

"The one house on Skyline [Drive] that didn't burn was the stucco house with the clay tile roof."

Frank had a temporary hiccup in the insurance claim process, but reached a favorable agreement with his adjuster.

"I was able to rebuild the house at virtually no out-of-pocket costs," Frank said. "For me, it was a good deal."

He also fought for Laguna residents and flew with then Councilman Paul Freeman to Washington, D.C., in late 1994 to meet with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Frank said.

Frank and Freeman argued successfully for FEMA to cover homeowners' building and zoning fees to rebuild their houses, Frank said.

"[FEMA authorities] changed their mind after most of the houses had been processed. We were looking at $1 million in costs."

About 70% of homeowners in Laguna rebuilt after the fire, but some lots remained vacant, Frank said.

Nearly four years after the blaze, 61 of 286 lots still contained ruins from the fire, according to a July 1997 city report titled "Status of Fire-Damaged Properties."

Of the 61 lots, homeowners for 27 sites had not officially indicated to the city they would rebuild, the report said.

The city lost property tax revenue for a few years after the fire because the destroyed homes were taken off the tax rolls, but it wasn't a big blow to city coffers, according to Frank.

"The city lost some money, but financially it was not devastating to city government," Frank said. "The building department [lighted]-up, and this is during a recession. This pulled the building department out of recession."

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