La Cañada Flintridge may soon offer property tax breaks to owners of historic buildings who agree to restore or preserve them.
Despite the presence of a number of notable homes throughout the city, La Cañada currently offers no specific protections against destroying or drastically remodeling historic properties within its bounds.
But on Aug. 1, the City Council will hear a pitch for a voluntary program that would encourage restoration and maintenance of structures deemed to contribute to the city’s history, identity and character.
Such a program is possible under the Mills Act, a 1972 state law that empowers cities to broker contracts that reduce or suspend individual property taxes in exchange for preservation guarantees.
“The Mills Act route is the one that makes the most sense for us, given where we’re starting from, which is nowhere,” said Councilman Donald Voss.
For the past five months, Voss has led a volunteer group of city officials and residents who weighed several preservation program options. A Mills Act program, they concluded, would protect property owners’ rights and have little impact on public coffers.
“We looked at all sides to make sure that it encourages people to save beautiful old homes but doesn’t hurt [revenues for] the city or the school system,” said Planning Commissioner Herand Der Sarkissian.
The group’s recommendation for a Mills Act program includes an annual city revenue loss cap of $10,000, enough to accommodate more than a dozen properties. School district revenue would not be affected, Jordan said.
“Under any conceivable scenario, the impact on the city is tiny. The impact on the school district is nothing because allocating revenues to the school district is based on a state per-student formula. Fluctuations in local property tax don’t impact the amount of funding they’ll get any particular year,” he said.
Out of every property tax dollar collected, the city only gets about 6.7 cents directly — the rest of it distributed at the state and county levels, Jordan explained.
More complex questions, however, include what constitutes an historic property and who will determine that definition.
Committee members recommend that the Planning Commission or a special city workgroup make determinations based on qualities such as architectural significance, unique contribution to neighborhood character and connection to important people or events.
“We don’t want to confuse age with historic value,” said Voss.
Members of the study committee included Design Commissioner John Roberts, architectural historian and Lanterman House archivist Tim Gregory, local history buff Candy Dougherty and longtime community volunteer Graham Stumpf. City Planner Patrick Clarke and Finance Director Daniel Jordan acted as advisors.