Revised Preservation Ordinance introduced, passed to second reading for adoption


The City Council on July 14 moved a revision of the controversial revised Preservation Ordnance closer to adoption.

Despite last-minute changes that morning, the council voted to pass the ordinance to a second reading, as required for adoption. As passed, the ordinance mandates a return to a “voluntary” preservation program, meaning property owner consent is required for a structure to be considered as a local historical resource, the most divisive element of the long discourse on the revision. 

“The ordinance was voluntary when it was put into effect, and voluntary when it was put into the General Plan,” said Mayor Bob Whalen. ”But it evolved into an involuntary inventory.”

The vote was 4-1, Councilwoman Toni Iseman the lone opponent. 

“There were substantial errors that made this [ordinance] unpopular,” said Iseman. “Some horror stories were accurate, but there were a lot of success stories.”

Benefits, Iseman said, should be emphasized. Among them: properties on the city’s Historical Register may apply for a state Mills Act contract, which may substantially reduce property taxes, freeing up money for maintenance on older homes.   

Iseman recommended delaying the vote on the proposed revisions for further study to try to reach a compromise between those who favored shucking the involuntary inclusion and those who fear voluntary-only participation will lead to the mass destruction of structures that enhance Laguna’s ambiance and illustrate its history.

Councilman Peter Blake opposed any delay.   

“All I can see are benefits for someone who wants to restore a house,” said Blake. “If they scrape [demolish], they would have to rebuild to the 2020 code –no one wants to do that. We’ve got the votes. Get it done. Anyone who doesn’t like it: move.”

Mayor Pro Tm Steve Dicterow opined that the fear of losing much of what makes Laguna Beach a place where people want to live and to visit is real. 

“They want to preserve the look and feel of Laguna – but that is not historic,” said Dicterow. 

Revised Preservation Cypress

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Historic charmer on Flora St

Whalen said that one of the two main objectives of the hearing was to establish voluntary participation by owners in the preservation of resources, a sticking point in all of the more-than-30, often raucous meetings held on the proposed revisions to the ordinance since 2015.

That includes eliminating references to the 1981 Inventory, which contained some 850 properties, with or without the owner’s consent or even knowledge. 

Staff reported that the inventory, if not invalided, at least no longer meets the city’s needs since it has not been updated for five years. 

Properties that were indentified on the inventory as eligible for the local register will no longer be flagged under the revised ordinance during the plan check process or on the Real Property Report. 

However, the city will maintain a list of properties identified as potentially eligible for the National Register and staff will be required to evaluate the properties as part of a development application. If an assessment is required by the city, the city pays, staff said. 

Whalen’s second objective was changing the definition of historic resources. 

The definition in the revised ordinance:

--Historic resource means a property or structure that is listed on the city’s register

--Is listed on the California Register of Historical Resources

--Has been determined to be eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources by the State Historical Resources Commission 

--Is listed on the National Register of Historical Places

--Has been officially determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historical Places by the National Park Service or the city is mandated by law to treat as a historical resource based on substantial evidence in light of the whole record

According to the staff report, the definition is consistent with state law and follows the mandates of the California Environmental Quality Act (CE QA) by recognizing that there will be situations in which a structure may be considered “eligible” for the California Register of Historic Places and must, therefore, be considered a historic resource.

Revised Preservation oldest

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

One of the oldest houses in Laguna

“If the state law mandates we treat [a structure] as historic, that is how we have to treat it,” said Whalen. 

The council also approved a negative declaration, which stated that the ordinance would not have a negative effect on the environment and did not require an environmental impact report. 

Fifty letters and more than 200 emails were sent to the council related to the ordinance and the “negative dec,” City Clerk Lisette Chel-Walker said. 

The council also received 35 phone calls during the hearing. Callers were fairly evenly divided between support and opposition. 

Support for the ordinance began with a 10-minute presentation by Larry Nokes.

“This is a voluntary ordinance – finally,” he said. “It was always intended to be.”

Nokes said homeowners in Laguna, with no desire to have their homes designated as historical or to reap any of the benefits, have been subjected to time-consuming and costly processes. 

Other supporters included the Laguna Board of Realtors, Dave Cortez, owner of a 1930 restored home, and architect Marshall Ininns. 

“I don’t understand the fear that old houses will be done away with,” said Ininns. “I have 10 projects and only one owner is not agreeing to the historical designation.” 

Opponents included Catherine Jurka, who gave a 10-minute presentation on behalf of the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition. 

“Don’t betray our past by bulldozing our future,” Jurka said in conclusion. 

She had previously submitted a 17-page single-spaced letter to the council. 

“The proposed amendment ordinance, the Historic Resources Element, and other documents would significantly impact – indeed we believe would irreparably damage – the city’s unique aesthetic and historic character,” Jurka wrote.

She also opposed the negative dec on the basis that the ordinance would have a significant environmental impact. 

Opponents also included former Planning Commissioner Becky Jones, who wrote that the negative declaration cannot be justified.

“The proposed ordinance eliminates protections from previously protected historic structures [C and K rated] and will create significant cumulative impact on the cultural and aesthetic ambiance of our commercial and residential areas,” stated Jones.

Also opposed to the revised ordinance: Former Mayor Ann Christoph, Dr. Gary Jenkins, Village Laguna, and Preserve Orange County, a citizen’s group that promotes preservation of the county’s architectural and cultural heritage.

The second reading of the ordinance is scheduled to come back to the council no later than August 11.