In Whittier: A Policy Model for OC Cities?

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While those who appreciate history never want to needlessly lose a historic structure to a new development, those who are trying to develop a property want to avoid being delayed from making their project a reality when there is no significant structure on the site.

About five years ago, I was a project manager for a local homebuilder who wanted to develop an underutilized, low-intensity, industrial site in the City of Whittier with 55 new homes.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires an assessment of whether a proposed development project will have an impact on a historical resource and the level of that impact. The structures on the site were built just over 50 years ago and the State Office of Historic Preservation recommends the preparation of a historical assessment report for structures over 45 years to determine their historic significance.

To prevent the loss of historic resources, the City of Whittier requires an applicant to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness from the city’s Historic Resource Commission prior to obtaining a demolition permit to raze a building or structure that is at least 50 years old. Specifically, a professional historic resource evaluation must be prepared and then presented to the city’s Historic Resources Commission for their review and action. The homebuilder that I worked with went through this process and received approval of a Certificate of Appropriateness.  The hearing before the Historic Resources Commission added no time to their overall entitlement timeline and was completed before the project went to the Planning Commission for their decision.

Stakeholders in Whittier benefit from the City’s policy of requiring a Certificate of Appropriateness prior to demolishing an unevaluated resource that is at least 50 years old because it assesses its historic value and the impact of its contemplated loss under CEQA. 

Project proponents benefit from this requirement as well because it offers another line of defense for the project if it is challenged on the grounds of historical significance through CEQA. Before proceeding with an application for approval of the project with the City, the homebuilder hired a historic resources consultant who met the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s professional qualifications in history and/or architectural History to assess the historic significance of the property. The consultant determined that the project site did not have historic value under CEQA or through any local, state or federal preservation program. This allowed the homebuilder to proceed with confidence that a Certificate of Appropriateness should be approved and that accusations of the property being a historic resource were unlikely.

Attention to preservation aspects can have long-term benefits for the community and for those developing projects who want certainty that historic preservation will not be the cause for delay of a project that may itself one day be historically significant.

by Phil Bacerra

Krista Nicholds