Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Ordinance

Founded in 1887 and incorporated in 1927, Laguna Beach faces the loss of robust protections and thus hundreds of historic resources that for almost forty years have helped this former artist colony preserve its unique historic character.

Hundreds of small houses and beach cottages built between the 1920s to the 1940s still make up the residential community of Laguna Beach. These mostly vernacular homes were identified as historic in previous surveys but they are now at risk.

Hundreds of small houses and beach cottages built between the 1920s to the 1940s still make up the residential community of Laguna Beach. These mostly vernacular homes were identified as historic in previous surveys but they are now at risk.

Recognized as a Historic American Landscape by the National Park Service in 2017, Laguna Beach was once proactive in historic preservation. The City commissioned a Historic Resource Inventory in 1981, which identified over 800 historic properties developed before 1940, including 42 found eligible for the National Register. In 1983 the City Council adopted a Historic Resources Element as part of the General Plan, which celebrated Laguna’s historic buildings and made their preservation a major component of its local planning process. Currently there are more than 300 historic properties designated in the Laguna Beach Historic Register. Owners of historic properties are eligible for substantial benefits including the Mills Act and reduced parking requirements.

Downtown Laguna Beach, Pacific Coast Highway. Photo courtesy of the Laguna Beach Historical Society.

Downtown Laguna Beach, Pacific Coast Highway. Photo courtesy of the Laguna Beach Historical Society.

Unfortunately, virtually all historic resources in Laguna Beach are now under threat. The City Council proposes to rewrite the City’s General Plan and Municipal Code to make historic preservation almost entirely voluntary. Against the advice of its own City Attorney and Preserve Orange County, the Council decided last year that under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a local government is only required to treat a property as a historic resource if it is formally designated on the National Register of Historic Places or the California Register of Historical Resources. Some Council members have expressed a desire to allow owners to remove their historic properties from the local Register for any reason, which would mean all but a few properties in Laguna could be demolished or substantially altered—even those whose owners signed a recorded agreement to preserve them—without environmental review under CEQA.

The Tudor Revival style is found throughout Laguna Beach.

The Tudor Revival style is found throughout Laguna Beach.

Laguna’s preservation program does have problems. Its Historic Preservation Ordinance is not well written and requires updating. Planning staff lack expertise in historic buildings and have often imposed inflexible requirements on owners of historic resources, while not taking advantage of opportunities such as use of the California Historic Building Code. This has alienated some owners of historic properties.

Village Laguna and the Laguna Beach Preservation Coalition have worked to fix these problems. So far they have not succeeded in persuading the City Council that its proposed course of action is far too extreme and contrary not only to CEQA but also to the best interests of the community. For more information on these efforts, click here http://www.villagelaguna.org/historic-preservation.

Brown’s Tower. Photo courtesy of the Laguna Beach Historical Society.

Brown’s Tower. Photo courtesy of the Laguna Beach Historical Society.

Fortunately, the proposed changes to the General Plan and Municipal Code must themselves undergo environmental review under CEQA, because they would certainly result in substantial adverse change to the significance of numerous historic resources, which is considered a significant effect on the environment. The City is in the process of hiring a consultant to assist with the environmental review process. Preservation advocates are awaiting these next steps, while trying to mobilize opposition to these destructive changes and ensure that the City follows a proper review process for properties currently still considered historic.

By Catherine Jurca

Krista Nicholds