City to weigh preservation of historic buildings

La Cañada Flintridge officials are considering whether to launch a voluntary historic preservation program for buildings in the city. The program would, if adopted, provide property-tax relief in exchange for guarantees that those savings would be invested in maintaining and rehabilitating culturally significant structures.

Council members remain uncertain about such a program's potential cost to city coffers or its benefit to quality of life. But Mayor Donald Voss later this month will form a committee to explore the city's options under the Mills Act, a 1972 state law that allows local governments to broker preservation contracts.

Voss expects the committee to weigh the program and later advise council members about what criteria could be used to determine a property's eligibility.

"The mere fact that something is old does not make it historic," he said.

He also will ask the committee to determine whether revenue loss would be large enough to have a negative impact on City Hall or the school district.

Pasadena, South Pasadena and Glendale are among dozens of cities that have already established Mills Act programs, which unlike many city historic-district preservation programs, apply to individual properties, and only at the request of the property owner.

Glendale City Council members have approved Mills Act preservation contracts for 48 properties without substantially impacting city revenue, said Jay Platt, that city's planner for historic preservation and urban design.

"The idea is that this is public benefit, not just a benefit to the property owner," Platt said.

On average, Glendale has foregone $1,125 in tax revenue per property per year under the Mills Act's tax-adjustment formula, bringing the city's total cost to just above $50,000.

Platt said the act allows cities the flexibility to establish their own eligibility requirements for the program and to set limits on total tax loss.

La Cañada's interest in the Mills Act surfaced last month after an inquiry by attorney Brad Schwartz, who lives with his wife Vicki in a 1926 Spanish Colonial Revival home on Woodleigh Lane that was developed by Frank Flint, who gave Flintridge its name.

Schwartz said he was inspired to research the Mills Act by preservationists who told him about his home's historic legacy, and after recognizing that many other homes in the area also played a role in shaping the area's identity.

"I think there's consensus that it's a worthwhile thing to preserve historic homes, but the question is how to get there. I think [the Mills Act] is something for the city to explore," said Schwartz.

Though boasting dozens of homes created by important 20th-century architects — Wallace Neff, Myron Hunt and Paul Williams (who worked with Flint) among them — La Cañada Flintridge has gone without architectural-heritage protections.

"We've lost quite a few really significant houses that were valuable assets to the community [including several by Williams], but people may be surprised at how many are left," said Tim Gregory, who is archivist for the Lanterman House and has counted some 1,300 homes built in the city before 1940.

But local historic-preservation movements, including a push in the early 1990s by the now-defunct La Cañada Historical Society, have failed due to anxieties about property rights, Gregory said.

La Cañada architect Michael Burch and his wife Diane Wilk, also an architect, said they pushed years ago for city officials to investigate the Mills Act.

"We have a treasure trove of historic houses, but we're about the only community in the area that hasn't done a thing about historic preservation," said Burch. "Preservation increases property values, and the Mills Act is elective — it's there only for the people who want to use it."

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