Agency: House can be razed

Property owner John Meehan can demolish a house on Coast Highway in Laguna Beach that has fallen into disrepair and build anew.

The California Coastal Commission sided with previous Design Review and City Council determinations that the single-family house at 31381 Coast Hwy., referred to as Stonehenge, had not maintained its historical integrity and unanimously denied an appeal by preservationist groups South Laguna Civic Assn. and Village Laguna at a hearing in Long Beach last week.

"[Commissioners] agreed with the position we've taken all along, that this house was not the house built in [the 1920s]," Meehan's attorney, Larry Nokes, said of the 12-0 vote.

Commissioners agreed with the agency staff's recommendation that the residence, which also includes a guest house, detached two-car garage and beach access stairs, has lost its architectural integrity and is not historically significant, the staff report said.

The house, listed on the city's historic inventory, endured several remodels through various owners before Meehan purchased the property in 2011, and no longer depicts the original structure, Nokes said.

All that's currently left of the house are wood frames — inside furnishings and walls were illegally removed within the last five years. Police do not know who performed the unpermitted acts, though officers were called to the house 16 times since 2007 for reports of loud drumming and trespassing, Capt. Jason Kravetz wrote in an email.

South Laguna Civic Assn. and Village Laguna representatives claim the house, which they say was built by Guy Skidmore, who helped dedicate nearby West Street and Camel Point beaches, still has enduring qualities reminiscent of yesteryear.

"The steep pitched roof ... and chimney that appear in the 1920s photographs and that are characteristic of the period revival style in Laguna are still there," according to a March 10 letter from Bill Rihn and Ginger Osborne, presidents of South Laguna Civic Assn. and Village Laguna, respectively. "The form and shape, the framing and foundations of the house also correspond."

Members of the city's Heritage Committee said they were saddened by the Coastal Commission's vote, but not surprised.

"If people don't do what they're supposed to be doing to keep the historical character, there needs to be consequences," Heritage Committee member Anne Frank said.

Code enforcement officers were aware of the exterior demolition, according to a city staff report prepared for the December 2011 Design Review meeting on the matter. Authorities issued a citation to Chase bank, property owner at the time, when the home was in foreclosure.

Even with the remodels, the house was still included in the historic inventory, said Ann Christoph, South Laguna Civic Assn. emeritus board member and a former Laguna Beach mayor.

The Environmental Coalition of Orange County listed the site on the historical inventory in 1981. The city annexed South Laguna six years later, and the property was added to Laguna Beach's historic inventory in 1991, the Coastal Commission staff report said.

A house can not be taken off the inventory for any reason, said Heritage Committee Chairman Jon Madison, who added that he doesn't believe the house deserved to be preserved.

Two historians, including one from a peer-reviewed consultant, evaluated the property and deemed it not suitable for rehabilitation because "the property is not historically significant due to compromised integrity issues," according to a city staff report.

"Why do you hire [a historian] and not go with them," Madison said. "It didn't need to go as far as the Coastal Commission."

It's rare that the commission hears this type of case, Christoph said.

"Historical preservation is not a coastal issue," Christoph said. "We made the argument that Laguna Beach is a historically based tourist town. To be able to explain the history of the coast, we need to preserve historical buildings."

Madison, owner of Madison Square Garden & Cafe, cast the lone dissenting vote in 2011 when the majority of the Heritage Committee recommended the house be restored.

"You can't save every home, nor should every home be saved," said Madison, who urges residents to inform the Heritage Committee of homes that fall into disrepair.

"Don't blame code enforcement," Madison said.

A historian hired by the city is evaluating all properties in the current historical inventory to ensure that addresses match records and to identify homes that might have fallen into disrepair, Madison said.

While the house can be demolished, Meehan still has to get permits for construction and take into account an appeal of his plans that has been filed with the Coastal Commission.

Meehan wants to build a 4,821-square-foot home, which is larger than the current 2,654-square-foot structure, and 730-square-foot garage. The construction is being challenged by Rihn and resident Mark Nelson.

The appeal, filed in July, claims Meehan needs to have a 5-foot-wide sidewalk along Coast Highway for pedestrians to access public beaches at Camel Point and south of Laguna Royale.

Meehan said he discussed the issue with city staff, and a 5-foot-wide sidewalk would either jut into Coast Highway or, if moved closer to the property, create an overhang that could impede emergency vehicles from accessing the driveway.

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